The Inclusive Economy
Assets, Opportunity and Formerly Incarcerated Persons
By Rachel Merker, Graduate Intern on 08/12/2016 @ 11:00 AM
For advocates and practitioners focused on enhancing the economic condition of formerly incarcerated populations, the Assets & Opportunity Scorecard can be a useful tool for measuring your state’s progress. However, this population is often locked out of programs that would help bring them into the financial mainstream and ease the reentry process.
The good news is that there are a number of advocacy groups and government agencies working to address this problem. These experts make clear that states have myriad policy avenues for helping formerly incarcerated persons achieve financial stability and discouraging recidivism. This article highlights some of their recommendations.
Minimizing the burden of criminal justice system fees and child support debt: One of the biggest economic hurdles facing formerly incarcerated persons are state fines and fees that accumulate as debts unpaid. Meanwhile, many who enter prison with active child support obligations are released to a pile of overdue payments. States could reduce this burden by:
- Minimizing the fees they charge inmates for costs associated with incarceration. As the Brennan Center for Justice points out, seven states do not allow defendants to be billed for a public defender, and nine states and D.C. do not charge inmates for room and board.
- Reducing or suspending child support payments for incarcerated parents, a strategy encouraged by the U.S. Administration of Children and Families. California, New York, Massachusetts and Oregon are examples of states that have successfully implemented this policy.
Lifting or modifying the ban on public assistance for drug-related felonies: Thanks to a 1996 Federal law, individuals with a felony conviction related to drugs are, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy, restricted from fully leveraging food and cash assistance programs (including their accompanying employment training services). While states have the discretion to lift or modify these bans, not all have done so.
- Six states deny Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to persons convicted of drug-related felonies, putting them and their families at greater risk of food insecurity.
- Thirteen states deny cash assistance under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, further restricting the program’s already-limited scope.
Providing fair-hiring remedies: A criminal record is a major barrier to finding employment, and the booming criminal background check industry is exacerbating the issue. Here’s how states could intervene:
- Implement ban-the-box statutes that keep employers from asking about criminal history on job applications. It should be noted, though, that while the National Employment Law Project considers this a powerful fair hiring tool, research from the Brookings Institute warns of an unintended consequence—increased racial profiling in hiring practices.
- Allow formerly incarcerated individuals to more easily expunge or seal their criminal histories so that they are no longer flagged during background checks. As of 2014, 24 states have expanded the classes of offense/offender that are eligible for expungement or sealing, and nine states have reduced the waiting period for this process.
Support housing initiatives for formerly incarcerated persons: An estimated 10% of people on parole are homeless upon release, making housing a key piece of the reentry puzzle. Eligibility for public housing is generally determined at the local level, and many housing authorities use stringent guidelines that make it difficult for recently released individuals to take advantage of housing assistance. In order to address this gap, states could leverage funding to scale transitional housing programs operating at local levels. Models in Minnesota, Idaho and Washington illustrate that supportive housing is a powerful tool for encouraging employment and reducing recidivism.
Actively seek to enroll inmates in Medicaid: There is no question that incarceration takes a major toll on mental and physical health, making access to health care crucial. Even though the Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid benefits such that most formerly incarcerated individuals qualify, take-up rates are still relatively low. However, states could do more to ensure access, including by enacting laws to suspend, rather than terminate, Medicaid while a prisoner serves time, so that they do not need to re-enroll upon release. According to Families USA, this policy exists in 16 states and DC.
Adequately fund high-quality correctional education: Around 40% of America’s jail and prison population lacks a high-school diploma or GED. Time in prison only widens the gap in education and skills, no doubt contributing to strikingly high unemployment rates among the formerly incarcerated population. Here’s how states could close it:
- Reinvest state funds in correctional education. The RAND institute suggests that every $1 spent on funding prison education reduces incarceration costs by $4-5 during the first three years post-release.
- Improve inmate participation and program quality. The Working Poor Families Project suggests that states make GED attainment mandatory for inmates, partner with state-funded universities and increase inmate access to internet-based learning.
The Bottom Line
While the above set of policy measures is far from exhaustive, it highlights just how complex the reentry process can be. As policymakers and advocates work towards criminal justice reforms, it is essential that states focus on equipping currently and formerly incarcerated persons to lead successful, economically stable lives post-release.