The U.S. makes up about 5% of the world population but has more than 20% of the world’s prison population. Incarceration has skyrocketed over the last several decades, and our country’s most marginalized communities bear the brunt of the cruelties of our criminal justice system. This cruelty expands beyond prisons, as over 6 million Americans are under the correctional supervision of parole or probation. Even without arrests and convictions, there is persistent over-policing of certain communities such as homeless populations and people of color.
Recent presidential administrations have made nonviolent offender sentencing reform a priority, and 2020 presidential candidates have called for unprecedented changes, like allowing incarcerated individuals the right to vote and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Prisoners in parts of the country have taken matters into their own hands with large-scale strikes in protest of inhumane conditions. The appetite for meaningful change is growing.
People leaving incarceration face numerous issues when they return to their communities. These needs often go unaddressed. Returning individuals must adjust to fewer job prospects, fractured social ties, and decreasing housing availability. This issue of Tenant Talk is devoted to the housing obstacles returning prisoners must overcome and how those obstacles must be addressed.
The criminal justice system intersects with housing justice in many ways, including that formerly convicted individuals must navigate significant barriers to accessing affordable housing. Broad background checks that lack nuance, landlord discrimination, and outright bans by housing authorities are just several of the barriers people returning to society face when seeking housing. Our neighbors experiencing homelessness have increasingly found themselves interacting with law enforcement in recent years, and the current administration has used rhetoric suggesting they plan to further criminalize unhoused people.
There is ample data on how Housing First policies reduce recidivism and homelessness, but the fight for the rights of those experiencing homelessness, the formerly incarcerated, and those entangled with the criminal justice system is a question of moral courage as well. While, yes, the data make the case, we also must make the case that people are more than their mistakes and should be afforded second chances in life.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll keep saying it—housing is a human right. We must extend that right even to those who some in society shun as irredeemable. The fight for housing justice IS the fight for criminal justice.