Policy Brief — Providing Housing for the Formerly Incarcerated

The modern day United States is one of the wealthiest societies to ever exist and despite crime rates on the decline and billions of dollars spent on corrections, the US cannot keep people out of prison and jail (BOP, 2018). The US has the most incarcerated people and the highest incarceration rates in the World; about 1 in every 100 adults is in prison or jail at any given moment, however, 95% are set to be released eventually and return to society (Kirk, Barnes, Hyatt, & Kearley, 2018). Unfortunately, an estimated ⅔ of those released will be rearrested within 3 years (Kirk, Barnes, Hyatt, & Kearley, 2018). Many experts believe that risk assessment tools can be developed to help manage risk of violence and re-offending but evidence has not necessarily supported this view (Viljoen, Cochrane, & Jonnson, 2018). These risk assessment tools operate from a theoretical perspective that increasing levels of punishment on the basis of prior record is justified under retributive or utilitarian theories however they often fail which helps highlight recidivism as an important area of reform (Hester, 2019). Given that such a significant percentage of the incarcerated population will be returning to society, there should be reasonable and attainable avenues for their reintegration and successful participation. The stigma of incarceration impacts housing stability, access to financial resources, ability to secure employment, and restricted access to benefits including welfare and subsidized housing (Geller & Curtis, 2011). Formerly incarcerated individuals are more likely to have short or poor credit history and are at risk of overly strained familial relationships which impacts their ability to find housing, jobs, and stable living conditions (Geller & Curtis, 2011). The way the system is currently set up, not only do incarcerated people lose earning and skill building opportunities while they are locked up, they miss out on societal or technological developments, have to catch up after the fact and face an uphill battle upon return. One-strike policies exclude individuals from public housing, they are denied Section 8 vouchers and have a much more difficult time in the private housing market overall (Geller & Curtis, 2011). Given the large scale numbers of people impacted by the criminal justice system and the incredible likelihood of reoffending and reincarceration after serving their sentence, it is clear that major shifts, not simple adjustments to the status quo, are required to better serve society. In a country with as many resources as the United States, society is effectively choosing to leave this problem as is and forcing its citizens to deal with the repercussions. Having stable housing positively impacts so many other impacts of life, and lack of housing can be equally detrimental, that it is a clear place to start.

It is extremely difficult for people re-entering mainstream society after spending time incarcerated for a number of reasons. Literature has identified difficulties in mending family and community relationships, transportation, food, clothing, unemployment, inferiority complex, struggling with change in environment, housing, substance abuse, and lack of after-care services (Chikadzi, 2017; Gunnison & Helfgott 2007; Morani, Wikoff, Linhorst, & Bratton 2011). These types of challenges, and subsequent crime, are not surprising to criminologists that subscribe to strain and labeling theory. Robert Agnew theorized that when people experienced strain such as failure to achieve positive goals, removal of positive stimuli, or the introduction of negative stimuli they may respond by committing crimes (Cullen, Agnew, & Wilcox, 2018). Labeling theory posits that individual behavior can be influenced by the terms used to define or classify people such as criminal, felon, ex-con and others of the sort (Cullen, Agnew, & Wilcox, 2018). Laub and Sampson’s life-course theory also provides a basis for understanding why developing interventions such as opportunities for individuals to separate from the settings, situations, and criminal peers that facilitated their prior criminal behavior can break the cycle of recidivism (Kirk, Barnes, Hyatt, & Kearley, 2018). Housing is a good start to removing strain, helping move past societal labels and creating an environment that disrupts prior criminal lifestyle choices. It is one of the most difficult obstacles that the formerly incarcerated face because of their limited credit, rental history, finances, and because property managers often conduct background checks in order to deny housing to particular types of offenders (Gunnison & Helfgott, 2007). Corrections officers, those who have worked the closest with incarcerated populations, confirm food, clothing, shelter, transportation, life skills, education, and employment assistance as the most important needs that parolees have when released (Gunnison & Helfgott, 2007). Findings show that the social context to which people return as well as the geographic accessibility of social service agencies both play important roles in successful reintegration (Hipp, Petersilia, & Turner, 2010). The level of disorder of the neighborhoods where formerly incarcerated people return affects their ability to reintegrate successfully; returning to places with higher levels of concentrated disadvantage makes them more likely to recidivate, even when controlling for individual characteristics (Hipp, Petersilia, & Turner, 2010). Even if employment is secured, a limited credit and rental history can make the formerly incarcerated individual a less desirable tenant than others with the same income. (Geller & Curtis 2011). Recidivism is not an entirely overlooked issue. There are programs in place and many that even address housing however, some programs are failing at their stated goals and the ones that do find success are often underfunded or simply not big enough.

Alternative Policies
Housing instability has been associated with diverse adverse outcomes such as delayed medical care and increased use of acute services (Curtis & Geller 2011). The way that the system is currently set up, not only do most formerly incarcerated people fail to receive the housing support that they need but actually face greater challenges. As mentioned, one strike laws make public housing assistance difficult, background checks and cost inhibits access to the private housing market, and familiar or social networks get disrupted because they can not necessarily move in with loved ones fearing potential eviction (Curtis & Geller 2011). This reality makes homelessness more likely, increases the potential for strain, makes the formerly incarcerated label more powerful and prevents opportunities for life-changing events that can help someone desist from crime.

Research has found that living within a couple of miles to social service providers decreases the likelihood of recidivating with a particularly strong effect for Black parolees (Hipp, Petersilia, & Turner, 2010). There is also evidence that a change in scenery can lower recidivism too. Kirk, Barnes, Hyatt, & Kearley (2018) found that individuals who moved away from their former parishes were less likely to be reincarcerated. Having a house does not solve all problems in and of itself but it is the foundation that other programs can be built upon including educational or vocational programs, mentorship and access to social services.

The Maryland Opportunities through Vouchers Experiment (MOVE) program, one existing example, was initially designed to provide 3 months of free housing subsidies. However, it was eventually increased to 6 months after conducting outreach to landlords and learning that the promise of 3 months of guaranteed rent was not sufficiently comforting to those looking for a 6-month or 1-year lease (Kirk, Barnes, Hyatt, & Kearley, 2018). The program is designed like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 voucher program so that the housing subsidies can be used in the private rental market rather than place participants temporarily in a transitional housing unit managed by the program (Kirk, Barnes, Hyatt, & Kearley, 2018). Participants sought their own housing and signed their own lease, sometimes for a duration longer than the 6-month subsidy, and were not bound by the amounts in the waiver if they had additional income as well (Kirk, Barnes, Hyatt, & Kearley, 2018). This program is particularly inspiring because, while it does provide housing counseling and housing location assistance, it grants the individuals a lot of autonomy in their own decision making and leaves them their dignity. In assessing the MOVE program, rearrests were lower among movers than non-movers, and was also lower for those who received free housing versus those who did not receive housing (Kirk, Barnes, Hyatt, & Kearley, 2018).

Washington state’s Dangerous Mentally Ill Offender (DMIO) program focuses on providing state-funded mental health and substance abuse treatment, housing, and other support services (Duwe, 2017). DMIO generally begins six months before release and participants receive support, based on their needs, for up to five years after their release from prison (Duwe, 2017). Recent evaluations found that the program reduced felony recidivism and violent felony recidivism while also saving money in the long-run (Duwe, 2017). While this program is not entirely based on housing, providing stable living conditions again allows other services to be administered and supports a healthy, crime free lifestyle.

Washington state has also implemented the Reentry Housing Pilot Program (RHPP) which provides housing assistance for high risk/high need offenders leaving prison without a viable place to live (Lutze, Rosky, & Hamilton, 2014). Studies have shown that frequent movements within the 1st year of release increase the likelihood of readmission to prison (Lutze, Rosky, & Hamilton, 2014). RHPP sees residential stability as a base from which formerly incarcerated can seek employment, focus on treatment, establish a social network within the community, and comply with community supervision; on the other hand, homelessness and housing instability undermine the ability to take advantage of of all of those opportunities and can lead to interactions with antisocial peers and environments highly correlated with crime (Lutze, Rosky, & Hamilton, 2014). So far, findings have shown that the RHPP program has been successful in significantly reducing new convictions and readmission to prison for new crimes (Lutze, Rosky, & Hamilton, 2014).

Recommended Policy
As demonstrated by the alternative policies, stable housing for the formerly incarcerated is beneficial to the individuals and beneficial to society. The suggested policy here does not need to reinvent the wheel but simply build on the fact that housing is an essential need for everyone and makes all other rehabilitative or reentry work much easier to administer. Offenders released from prison with no home are almost three times as likely to reoffend (Cowan & Fionda, 1994). Housing is tied to earnings, ability to obtain medical treatment and care, contact with parole officers or oversight committees, finding employment and much more (Geller & Curtis, 2011). There are benefits to receiving housing and, further, homelessness is often explicitly criminalized; not only are people without stable housing more likely to commit crimes but the lived realities of being homeless including sleeping in public or loitering can be targets of law enforcement for arrest (Kirk, Barnes, Hyatt, & Kearley, 2018; Geller & Curtis, 2011). Policies that provide greater access to housing for formerly incarcerated individuals can yield substantial public safety benefits overall (Kirk, Barnes, Hyatt, & Kearley, 2018).

Based on prior research and existing, successful housing programs, the United States government, federal, state and local, should be guaranteeing free housing for people that return to society after periods of incarceration as a matter of public safety, individual dignity, cost saving and moral practice. The exact length and cost of the support should be based on the context of the individual. Someone who is battling addiction, someone who has spent over 20 years incarcerated and someone who was experiencing homelessness that lead to criminal behavior could all have very different needs and will not be equally supported by a consistent dollar amount or term length between them. The support should be comprehensive and re-evaluated on a year to year basis. However, some people may never be able to afford housing on their own after surviving the trauma that prison and removal from society enacts. If supporting an individual for the rest of their life after prison is looked down upon, then the use of prison and the problems it creates should be rebuked, not the individual’s needs after the fact.

According to the Vera Institute, the average cost of each incarcerated person in 2015 was $33,274 with the cheapest state’s, Alabama, expenses still reaching $14,780 per person (Mai & Subramanian, 2017). Temple (2019) reported that national median rent for a 2-bedroom apartment was under $16,000 per year and it is likely that Alabama was far under that. Directly in terms of cost, every year that rent is paid opposed to costs of incarcerating that person saves money directly. It can also reduce other costs associated with crime and helping the potential victims as well. Even states with the smallest budgets like Delaware and South Dakota, let alone the biggest budgets of New York and California, spend hundreds of millions or even billions per year on their corrections systems (Delaware Department of Corrections, 2020; Noem, 2020; New York Department of the Budget, 2019; Newsome, 2020). With so much crime attributed to reoffenders, it is not unreasonable to believe that lower recidivism can shrink the systems overall and lead to great savings in the local, state and federal budgets (Kirk, Barnes, Hyatt, & Kearley, 2018). Further, people that are able to find stable housing, which hopefully leads to a job, also create more money for the state by being a member of the general citizenry in terms of taxes, helping to grow the economy and other positive contributions.

If the individual is capable, they should receive the money directly from the government and be allowed to make the decision on their own about paying for rent. Humans deserve to be treated with dignity and trusted to make the right decisions. It can be expected that there might be a level of fraud committed, mistakes made or even people that do not use the money exactly how it is intended but these numbers will be minimal relative to current levels of corrections expenses (BOP, 2018). Again, costs will be decided on an individual basis and take context into consideration. Single people in rural small towns will not need the same amount as those with families in metropolitan areas but all of it combined can still be expected to be cheaper than the way that the prisons operate right now (Mai & Subramanian, 2017). This public program also provides fertile ground for private partnerships or other social services to step in and provide more supplemental support as needed.

Policy Comparison
The problems with the existing programs mentioned earlier in this paper are not their goals or methods but rather the scope. There is little to no research that says having stable housing increases recidivism rates or causes people to commit more crime. There are debates about how much the housing on its own can do but homeless and housing unstable people are at greater risk of arrest when accounting for most other variables (Lutze, Rosky, & Hamilton, 2014; Cowan & Fionda, 1994). The relationship between housing and employment is also inconclusive. Some studies argue that finding employment leads to stable living conditions and others say it is the other way around but again, there is little to no evidence that having a house would make employment more difficult (Geller & Curtis 2011). Providing housing cannot be the final solution, people will still need help overcoming the stigma of being formerly incarcerated, and the accompanying strains but it is a huge step in the right direction. With stable housing, individuals are more able to seek out and complete educational, job training, and work programs in order to increase employment, improve their financial stability, and reduce their risk of recidivism (Geller & Curtis, 2011). Addressing the one strike restrictions on public housing makes some housing more accessible but it is not enough. Providing 3 or 6 months of free rent can also help people but it is really not that long of a time. People with 6 months of rent covered are one mistake or one tragedy away from where they were without the support. It also makes moving more likely after the time period is up which has already been explained to exacerbate the chances of returning to prison (Lutze, Rosky, & Hamilton, 2014). Any conditional or expiring help is really just a band-aid that masks the problem for whatever amount of time has been selected. If the United States would like to eliminate recidivism and keep the public safer, it should start providing more for its citizens.

The World Bank (2020) places the United States’ GDP at over $21 trillion dollars which means that most any issues that exist in this country are a matter of resource allocation and not resource scarcity. The government spends hundreds of billions on the military and billions more on corrections overall (Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, 2020; BOP, 2018). The richest people in America own a far disproportionate amount of wealth and multiple properties while there are millions of vacant houses strewn across the country (Stebbins, 2018). The United States is effectively choosing that it is worth it for people to live on the streets or in unstable housing in order to maintain the values of homes for others; we allow crimes to happen at the top of the wealth pyramid so that we can punish those on the bottom for their survival. If the United States wants to start lowering recidivism and reducing crime rates, housing has been proven to be a good place to start. Housing for people reentering society from corrections facilities will make them less likely to commit more crimes and more likely to find work . Although it is not the topic of this paper, based on the articles cited it can also be assumed that providing both housing and employment would have even greater positive effects (Norris, 2020). This can be extrapolated even further. This paper has focused on those that have already committed crimes, been arrested, and served sentences but it is likely that ensuring that no one in America is housing unstable or homeless from birth could actually prevent a lot more crimes overall (Norris, 2020). It could be argued that housing and job guarantee problems, while not necessarily eliminating crime altogether, could be very effective tools for fighting and preventing crime based on criminological theory and studies around the impacts of housing on recidivism. Again, the United States has enough money to afford any program it could ever dream up, it is just a matter of allocation.

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Benjamin Cohn

Justice, Law and Criminology Graduate Student. Sharing some thoughts and some of my academic assignments as well.