Incarcerated People Are Being Released Due to COVID-19. But Where Can They Go Next? | Opinion

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, jails and prisons are releasing hundreds of people from behind bars. That's the right decision. But largely unnoticed are the challenges people face after they are released.

The one in three U.S. adults with criminal records are often denied a full reentry into society, depriving them of their basic humanity. Many struggle to access basic needs—like housing, health care, and employment—due to past transgressions.

I've experienced this firsthand. I'm a formerly incarcerated black woman. Years ago, while in Ohio and Washington, D.C., landlords often made it difficult for me to access housing—even when I was well-paid and could easily afford the monthly rent. While I now seek out private homeowners, finding housing is still challenging.

We can't keep entrapping people with records and their families in the crimes they committed. Lawmakers can begin to end this 2nd-class citizen status by making criminal history a protected class. Currently, federal law bans group discrimination based on certain characteristics—including age, race, religion, and sex—for housing, employment, and some public benefits. By adding criminal history to this list of protected classes, we can help ensure that formerly incarcerated people receive their deserved rights.

Many people like me have struggled to find housing due to a record. In a 2015 survey of formerly incarcerated individuals and their family members, nearly four in five reported being ineligible for or denied housing because of the prior conviction history.

Consider the experience of Melvin Lofton, as reported by NPR. He was found guilty of burglary and theft during his 20s. Two decades after being released from prison, he attempted to rent a home in a trailer park. The owner questioned his conviction, and Melvin was not allowed to move in.

Formerly incarcerated people—particularly black and brown Americans—also struggle to find employment. In the 2015 survey, three out of four participants said that finding employment after release was difficult or almost impossible. The decision to deny formerly-incarcerated people jobs based on their previous convictions disproportionately affects people of color. A separate 2017 analysis revealed that more than nine in 10 employers scrutinized applicants' criminal histories.

Horror stories about finding employment abound. Take the tale of one man in New Jersey, as reported by The New York Times. He was struggling financially and fell behind on child support payments—and was arrested for the first time in his life. He paid the required penalty and went on the search for work. After applying to about 30 jobs and going on several interviews, he didn't receive a single offer.

Plenty of research shows that criminal history can impact hiring decisions. Several studies conducted by a Harvard sociologist revealed that overall, formerly-incarcerated men who reported having a conviction were about 50 percent less likely to receive a callback or job than those with no record. Research from Arizona State University found that formerly-incarcerated applicants were less likely to be hired than other stigmatized applicants -- like welfare recipients or people with only short-term and part-time work histories.

The same system that denies formerly-incarcerated individuals employment and housing also makes accessing public benefits difficult. The aforementioned 2015 survey revealed that one in five survey participants who sought support was denied public benefits after release. A few states, for example, prevent people from accessing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides cash assistance to families in need with children. South Carolina bans people convicted of drug felonies from getting food stamps for life.

Policymakers have taken some steps to reduce barriers for formerly incarcerated individuals. In 2016, federal officials released guidance stating that denying applicants based on criminal history may violate federal laws. Some states have passed laws banning employers from asking about criminal history until later in the hiring process.

Sometimes it's possible for formerly incarcerated individuals to take legal action against discriminatory practices. But it's difficult to prove discrimination and dedicate the time and resources to a lengthy legal battle—especially for people who are trying to move forward with their lives.

It's absurd that it's so difficult to overcome a criminal background. Consider the comparison to another common barrier to housing and employment: credit scores. Many people have poor credit scores—perhaps because they encountered unexpected expenses or made a financial mistake years ago. But it's relatively easy to get back on track, for example, by getting a credit limit increase. A criminal record, however, lasts forever.

Making formerly incarcerated individuals a protected class for housing, employment, health care and public benefits would make clear that discrimination based on criminal history is illegal. This would help end the stigmatization of people who've been convicted and finally give millions of Americans their deserved rights.

DeAnna Hoskins is president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in #halfby2030. She was previously incarcerated.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​