Justice

The Many Injustices of the Money Bail System

After reading about the recent death of 26-year-old Jeffrey Pendleton—who was being held in a New Hampshire jail simply because he couldn’t afford to pay $100 in bail—my reaction was anger.  Why was Mr. Pendleton held in jail in the first place?  He had not been convicted of a crime, nor did he appear to pose a flight risk or danger to the public. He was locked up simply because he was poor. And he died in a jail cell.

Tragically, stories like his are far too common in America, and they are the reason I have introduced the No Money Bail Act of 2016 to reform our system of pretrial detention.

Last July, Sandra Bland was pulled over for failing to signal while driving in Texas. She was put in jail and bail was set at $5,000, an amount she could not afford to pay. Three days later she was found hanged in her cell.  And Qiana Williams, who shared her story at the White House last December and on Capitol Hill this past February, spent weeks in a St. Louis jail because she couldn’t afford to pay court and traffic fees.

Across the country, it comes down to this: People of means are able to pay their way out of jail, while the poor remain behind bars awaiting their day in court.

Even for those who can muster the funds, the money bail system is unfair.

Justice in America should not be bought and paid for.

In San Francisco, 29-year-old Crystal Patterson, who gets by on a $12.50-an-hour job, paid a bail bondsman $1,500 plus interest to post her $150,000 bail so she could return home to care for her grandmother.  She also signed an agreement to pay back the $15,000 bond posted by the bail bondsman. Afterwards, the District Attorney dropped the charges, but, though the bail bondsman would have been returned the $150,000 bail, Patterson is unlikely to ever see the money she paid to the bail bond company.

At any given moment, more than 450,000 Americans are locked up without ever having been convicted of a crime.  In my home state of California, more than two-thirds of those in jail haven’t been convicted, a total of more than 42,000 people.

Moreover, even a few days in jail can be devastating for families—especially those that are already fighting to make ends meet.  Perversely, money bail gives inmates a strong incentive to plead guilty, even when innocent, because they cannot afford bail and need to get back to their families, jobs, or education. Being locked up can also increase an individual’s risk of suicide and depression.

Finally, unnecessary pretrial detention of low-risk defendants is expensive. State and local governments in the U.S. spend an estimated $14 billion annually to incarcerate people who haven’t been convicted of a crime. In contrast, pretrial systems based on risk, rather than wealth, cost on average $7 per day.

For these reasons, most nations consider money bail an obstruction of justice. In fact, the only other country that maintains a large commercial bail bond industry is the Philippines. In the case of our disgraceful bail system, American exceptionalism is decidedly not a good thing.

Any serious effort at criminal justice reform must address our feudal-like bail system, which amounts to modern-day debtors’ prisons.  The “No Money Bail Act of 2016,” which I introduced earlier this year, would eliminate the payment of money as a condition of pretrial release at the federal level, and also would give states three years to switch to alternative systems or else forfeit law enforcement grants.

Justice in America should not be bought and paid for.  For the sake of Jeffrey Pendleton, Sandra Bland, Qiana Williams, and the countless other Americans who have suffered at the hands of our unjust money bail system, it is long past time that the United States join the rest of the civilized world when it comes to pretrial incarceration.

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Justice

How Expanding Legal Aid Services Supports Reentry and Protects Civil Rights

After nearly 30 years as an employment lawyer, I still remember the first time I spoke with a client who had been turned down for a job because of his criminal record. It was the late 1980s. I remember thinking that I didn’t know the first thing about how to help him. And I remember wondering how many other people might be facing barriers to employment because of criminal records.

Nearly three decades later, we now know that 1 in 3 Americans have some type of criminal record, which translates into nearly three million residents in Pennsylvania, where I practice. And it is well documented that having even a minor record—such as a misdemeanor, or even an arrest that never led to conviction—can serve as an intractable barrier to employment.

Meanwhile, the number of people with criminal records seeking help from the legal aid program where I work, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS), has grown exponentially.  Today roughly 1,000 people with criminal records request CLS representation every year, comprising roughly two-thirds of our employment caseload.

As the White House commemorates National Reentry Week, civil legal services must be front and center as a vital tool to help people with criminal records get a fair shot at employment.

Helping people earn a clean slate

Record-clearing is at the heart of what CLS does to help people with criminal records, as it is the single most helpful tool to address the barriers associated with having a record. In addition to helping hundreds of clients get their records expunged each year, we conduct expungement clinics in the community to reach people who don’t—or can’t—make it into our offices. And one of my colleagues created “expungement generator” software that assembles expungement petitions from case information available online, allowing us to help many more individuals at once than if we had to enter the information one-by-one.

But no amount of clinics or special software could make it possible for us to help all the Philadelphians held back by criminal records, and we are forced to turn away far more people than we have the capacity to help. Some 82,000 petitions for expungement were filed in Pennsylvania last year alone.  But that is the tip of the iceberg—so many more people qualify for, and need, expungements.

That’s why CLS is working with the Center for American Progress and the transpartisan U.S. Justice Action Network to pass first-in-the-nation legislation that would enable Pennsylvanians to earn a clean slate once they have remained crime-free for a set period of time. The Clean Slate Act, which was introduced by bipartisan legislators in the Pennsylvania legislature earlier this month, has the potential to transform record-clearing for untold numbers of Pennsylvanians who have no access to the legal process.

Protection from employment discrimination

While a clean slate is the surest pathway for people with criminal records to move on with their lives, protections against employment discrimination are critical for those who cannot clear their records. Although people with criminal records are not a protected class, employment discrimination on the basis of a criminal record has for years been held a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That’s because communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) plays an important role in enforcing Title VII. But without lawyers to file complaints on behalf of people whose rights have been violated, Title VII protections are theoretical at best. Thus, filing race discrimination claims with the EEOC and challenging employers who have turned down our clients for jobs due to criminal records is another key part of CLS’ work.

We’ve also seen—and worked to rectify—gaps in existing laws and policies around hiring discrimination. After many years of advocacy by CLS and others, the EEOC issued a new criminal records policy four years ago, making clear that blanket policies excluding people with records are illegal. It also set forth criteria—such as the nature and length of time since the offense—that must be considered by employers. Similarly, at the local level, working with a broad coalition of partners, CLS helped develop and pass the “fair chance hiring” law enacted in Philadelphia last year.

Another employment barrier that many of our clients face stems from overly broad laws prohibiting employers from hiring people with criminal records. For example, in 1997, Pennsylvania enacted a law prohibiting long-term health care facilities from employing people convicted of crimes as minor as library book theft at any point in their lifetimes, no matter how clearly they had been rehabilitated. CLS filed suit challenging these restrictions, and in December of last year, the law was struck down for violating Pennsylvania’s state constitution.

Improving accuracy in background checks

Another major problem people with criminal records face is erroneous background checks—particularly when they are prepared by commercial screeners, a cottage industry that’s grown dramatically over the last 20 years. Common errors include reporting expunged cases or providing the wrong grade of an offense (such as stating that a misdemeanor was a felony). Sometimes screeners even report cases that didn’t involve the person who is being screened.

In addition to helping our clients correct faulty reports, CLS frequently brings class action lawsuits under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, seeking to fix systemic problems and require companies to ensure accuracy in their background checks.

Over the years, my CLS colleagues and I have developed a practice that helps at least some people who have paid their dues move on and make their way out of poverty. This work has been enormously gratifying. I have never seen clients more overjoyed—or relieved—than when they finally get an expungement, or when the job they’ve desperately needed comes through.

The community of legal aid and public interest lawyers doing this type of work around the country has grown tremendously over the nearly 30 years since I met my first client who’d been turned away from a job because of his record. Civil legal services organizations like mine have come to play a central role in making successful reentry possible for countless people with criminal records seeking to move on with their lives. As we commemorate National Reentry Week, expanding the capacity of civil legal services to help the millions of Americans struggling to enter or reenter the workforce will be key to addressing what I believe is the civil rights issue of our generation.

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Justice

From the Criminal Justice System to the Department of Justice

For the first time in its history, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has designated this week National Reentry Week, observed this year between April 24th and 30th. As part of this designation, Attorney General Loretta Lynch asked United States attorneys, wardens at the Bureau of Prisons, and members of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council (Reentry Council) to organize reentry-related events across the country. The response has been tremendous with over 200 events planned by our federal partners, ranging from job fairs for the formerly incarcerated to events at federal prisons for children of incarcerated parents. As the inaugural Second Chance Fellow in DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, I have the opportunity of using this week to reflect on my own reentry experience.

Sixteen years ago, I left prison like many of the 600,000 people released from federal and state institutions each year: full of excitement and trepidation. On the day of my release, my mother and step-father rented a vehicle, a Lincoln town car, to pick me up. At the time, I did not give much thought to the gesture because I was solely concerned with leaving that place as quickly as possible. A few years later, I asked my step-father why they went through the trouble of renting a luxury vehicle, something more suited for a trip to the senior prom, to pick me up from a maximum security prison. His response was that they wanted to make some sort of grand gesture to truly welcome me home.

Over the years, they continued to offer support in both tangible and intangible ways, including providing food, clothing and shelter; helping to fund my college education; and never solely defining me by my past mistakes. Their collective efforts illustrate what I think of as a “Second Chance culture”—a deep, sustained investment in my future success, more profound than any single reentry program or policy. Now, I am hardly suggesting that federal and state governments rent luxury vehicles for the 10 to 12 million people released from prisons and jails each year. But I am encouraging the government and the private sector to adopt policies and practices that embrace a Second Chance culture—one that envisions a prolonged commitment to the successful reintegration of people impacted by incarceration.

The Obama Administration and DOJ—through the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) and the Reentry Council—have taken great strides toward creating a Second Chance culture. Since the passage of the Second Chance Act in 2007, OJP has made over 700 grants, totaling over 400 million dollars, to local reentry programs. These community-based programs meet many of the basic life needs of people with criminal records by providing housing assistance, job training, and substance abuse treatment.

President Obama directed the Office of Personnel Management to “ban the box” for federal employment, which delays questions about criminal history until later in the employment process so applicants with criminal records have a fair chance at competing for jobs.

And members of the Reentry Council from more than 20 federal agencies have adopted policies that remove barriers and create opportunities for successful reintegration. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued policy guidance to housing providers on how to evaluate people with criminal records when they seek to rent or buy houses or apartments. Moreover, the Department of Education started a pilot program to give currently incarcerated people access to post-secondary education.

No person is defined by their contact with the criminal justice system—and everyone deserves a second chance.

Importantly, Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, who oversees OJP, is issuing policy guidance to 15 offices within OJP encouraging them, when appropriate, to avoid using terms like “ex-offender” and “ex-felon,” in an effort to diminish the stigmatization of people who have been justice-involved. And most notably for me personally, DOJ created the Second Chance Fellow position, specifically for a formerly incarcerated criminal justice expert, to help advise the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), the Reentry Council, and the entire Department on effective reentry policy and practice.  These combined efforts are the foundation of a Second Chance culture at the federal level because they signal a long-term, sustained commitment to improving the lives of millions of people with criminal records.

During my fellowship, I will contribute to the Department’s burgeoning Second Chance culture by advising the Second Chance portfolio of BJA, consulting with the Reentry Council on effective reentry policies, and serving as a conduit to the broader justice-involved population to ensure that DOJ is hearing from all stakeholders. The latter charge—garnering the perspectives of formerly incarcerated people to inform effective reentry policy—is critically important, as well as essentially uncharted territory for DOJ and most criminal justice agencies. I will compile the perspectives of formerly incarcerated people through a series of qualitative interviews with highly successful formerly incarcerated leaders. The goal will be to learn what about reentry works from people who have actually done it and are now making tremendous contributions to their communities.

Another benefit of the interviews is that they will be digitally recorded and compiled into an online story bank accessible the public. The purpose of the story bank is to challenge the pervasive negative stereotypes of people with criminal records, with the aim of humanizing the justice-involved population and thereby creating more public momentum for the adoption of effective reentry policy.

If America does not embrace a Second Chance culture, we miss the opportunity to reduce victimization, save precious public safety resources, and, most importantly, capitalize on the potential of people who have paid their debt to society and now want to contribute to their communities. Missed opportunities risk negatively impacting the economic vitality of the country as we undergo important demographic shifts. Over the next few decades, the Baby Boomer generation will age out of the workforce, while the majority of our nation’s population will become people of color. If African-Americans and Latinos, who comprise roughly 60 percent of the prison population, are denied the ability to get a job or an education to build their human capital, then there will be fewer qualified people to replace a dwindling workforce. A less qualified workforce means lower economic activity and production, which hurts the entire country.

National Reentry Week is an opportunity to acknowledge that no person is defined by their contact with the criminal justice system—and everyone deserves a second chance. Let us also use this week as a chance to embrace a larger cultural shift wherein we seek to invest in the long-term success of those who have been involved in the criminal justice system. The very health of our country depends on it.

The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Justice

What I Told the Attorney General and the HUD Secretary About My Criminal Record

After four decades of mass incarceration and over-criminalization in the United States, as many as 1 in 3 Americans now have some type of criminal record, and nearly half of U.S. children now have a parent with a record.

Today, as part of the Department of Justice’s inaugural National Reentry Week, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro visited Philadelphia to hear how brushes with the criminal justice system have stood in the way of employment, housing, and more—and how people have persevered.

Here are three stories told to Attorney General Lynch and Secretary Castro—they are representative of the experiences of millions of Americans held back by a criminal record.

Ronald Lewis: “So many doors have been closed in my face I know what wood tastes like.”

More than 10 years ago, when I was 25, I was convicted of two misdemeanors.  In one case, I was on the street with my brother when he was selling drugs, and I warned him that the police were coming. In the other, I tried to steal a pocketbook at Neiman Marcus.  I did my probation for these cases, and have been a law-abiding citizen ever since.

I am a father, a husband, a son, a friend, and ambitious to get ahead in life. I got a building engineering license in hopes of getting a good job. I am starting my own company so that I can give other people second chances working for me. I give freely of my time to be a role model to kids in my community and to younger men who are tempted by the streets. But to so many people, I am an “ex-offender,” and nothing more.

I’ll never forget the first time I was turned down for a job because of my record. I had been on the job for about a month when my background check came back. I was called into Human Resources and told they had to fire me because of my record. Security was called to immediately remove me from the building. It was the worst feeling of my life. It was humiliating to tell my family, who had been so proud of me, that I had failed again.

That was the first of many times that I was turned away from jobs I was qualified for because of my minor record. More times than I can count, companies have told me, “You’ll be great. Your skills are exactly what we are looking for.” But then that question about my background comes up.  So many doors have been closed in my face, I know what wood tastes like.  And because of my record, I can’t even take my kids on school field trips.  Do you know how devastating that is?

I do not and will not give up. My family is depending on me. My children are depending on me. I hope that one day, my record can be cleared, reflecting who I am now. That is why I am speaking out to support the Clean Slate Act, a bill in the Pennsylvania legislature that would automatically seal non-violent misdemeanor convictions after someone has remained crime-free for 10 years, as I have. This law would make a world of difference for people like me—and for our families and kids.

Helen Stokes: “I was denied from senior housing because of my arrest record”

I was 56 the first time I was ever arrested, in 2008. My husband, whom I later divorced, attacked me. When I called the police, he claimed that I had assaulted him. Can you imagine? Then two years later, after I took his ATM card for our joint account so that he wouldn’t spend our money on drugs, I was arrested for theft. Both times, the charges were dropped. I have never been convicted of a crime in my whole life.

After that, even though I had not been convicted, I got turned down for jobs because of my arrest record. Eventually, in 2014, I went to Community Legal Services for help. My lawyer got my cases expunged, and I thought that was the last I would hear of them.

I can’t even take my kids on school field trips. Do you know how devastating that is?

But about six months later, when I was trying to move into subsidized housing for seniors, I was denied admission because of the record that I wasn’t supposed to have anymore. I couldn’t believe it. I called the lawyer who had gotten my cases expunged, and she called the property managers and provided my expungement orders, but they still wouldn’t let me in. I had tears in my eyes when I got the rejection letter. Even after I told RealPage, the company that had done the background check, about my expungements and filed a dispute, they again reported my expunged cases to another senior housing facility, which also rejected me.

By this point, I was panicked. My house was being foreclosed on since I could no longer afford the mortgage payments after my divorce. I was worried that I would end up on the street or that I could no longer live on my own.

Eventually, a social worker at Community Legal Services helped me find a senior apartment, where I will soon be moving. It is a huge relief. But I don’t understand why senior housing would hold cases like this against me to begin with, given that I wasn’t even convicted.

Community Legal Services has since filed a class action lawsuit against RealPage for illegally reporting expunged cases like mine. I am proud to be the main plaintiff in that case, because I think justice must be done for other people like me. Background check companies like RealPage must learn that they cannot report expunged cases. But housing facilities should also give people like me a fair chance instead of turning people away just because of an arrest record.

Tyrone Peake: “Employers weren’t allowed to hire me because of my 30-year-old record”

When I was 18 years old, I was arrested with a friend for trying to steal a car. We had our girlfriends in town for the weekend. When one of the girls’ mothers insisted that she come home, we tried to steal a car to take her back. Mind you, I couldn’t even drive—and we weren’t even able to get the car started. But we had broken open the ignition, and I ended up being convicted of attempted car theft. I did three years of probation, and I never got in trouble again.

I am now 53 years old. I raised three daughters who are now all grown up. All my life, I’ve had a passion to help people, so I decided to pursue an associate’s degree so I could do health care work, graduating from Community College of Philadelphia in 2014. I never dreamed that a mistake I made when I was 18 years old would follow me for the rest of my life. But until recently, my decades-old record kept me from getting a full-time job in the field I’d gone to school to work in.

After I got my degree, I learned that Pennsylvania had a law that prohibited me from working in long-term care jobs because of my record. Even though more than 30 years had passed without me getting into trouble again, employers that wanted to hire me were not allowed to because of the law.  I eventually got a part-time job working as a recovery specialist, but the law prevented me from doing other jobs with the organization no matter how qualified I was—and no matter how much time had passed since my conviction.

Last year, Community Legal Services and pro bono lawyers challenged the law on behalf of me and other Pennsylvanians who had unfairly been stopped from working in jobs that we should be able to have. In December, Pennsylvania’s appellate court agreed with us and struck down the law.

The problems that I had because of my record caused me to doubt myself—and my future—for a long time. But I have a lot of joy knowing that this unfair law has been changed, there is a lot of hope and opportunity for me and others who come behind me and are trying to get ahead.

Editor’s Note: All three of these individuals were represented by lawyers in Community Legal Services’ Employment Unit. They gave permission for CLS and TalkPoverty.org to share their stories to help shine a light on the lifelong barriers associated with having even a minor record.

To commemorate National Reentry Week, TalkPoverty.org will feature posts throughout the week by leaders on reentry—all exploring the barriers to opportunity facing people with criminal records, and why addressing these barriers is a critical part of criminal justice reform.

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Safety Net

A Real Agenda to Cut Poverty

This article originally appeared on Real Clear Policy.

The American Dream is premised on the idea that the circumstances of your birth should not determine how far you can rise. Yet a growing body of research shows that a child’s ZIP code too often limits her life chances, with factors such as failing schools, dangerous streets, lack of quality jobs, and a dearth of community resources coming together to perpetuate poverty. And a new report suggests even more bad news for the American Dream: As it turns out, where you live isn’t just correlated with how high up the ladder you can climb; it also helps to determine the point at which you fall off altogether.

Multiple studies have confirmed that the rich typically live longer than those in struggling families, and that this gap is growing. A new study from Raj Chetty and his colleagues underscores that this gap is unconscionable, with nearly 15 years’ difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest American men and over 10 years’ difference for American women. But the study reveals something new as well: that the gap is place-based, with significant differences in life expectancy among lower-income individuals based on where they live.

Among the top 100 commuting zones, poor individuals had longer life expectancies in wealthier areas with more educated individuals. A poor person in New York City, for example, is expected to live years longer than a person with the same income in Detroit. In other words, there are not just “two Americas” — the rich and the rest of us — but also dozens and dozens of Americas on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, with policy choices dramatically shaping not just quality of life but also the length of it.

Where you live isn't just correlated with how high up the ladder you can climb; it also helps to determine the point at which you fall off altogether.

These disturbing findings come out as issues of poverty, inequality, and mobility have taken center stage in the political conversation. Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Tim Scott recently held a GOP “poverty summit” in South Carolina. Further, the speaker has indicated that later this spring, House Republicans will be releasing a “white paper” synthesizing their ideas to cut poverty.

But if past is prologue, many of the House’s recommendations will be a recipe to exacerbate and perpetuate the disparities that Chetty’s study unearthed. First, under the Republicans’ budget blueprint, struggling families would suffer no matter where they live. The recently proposed House budget protects tax cuts for millionaires while deriving more than three-fifths of its cuts from programs that help low- and moderate-income people — programs that have cut the nation’s poverty rate nearly in half.

But it gets worse. The solutions favored by conservatives have typically been to consolidate and flat-fund federal programs that are currently helping struggling families, and to send these programs to the states. There have been many euphemisms for this policy over time: block grants, “empowering local communities,” “increased flexibility,” and, most recently, Speaker Ryan’s “opportunity grants.” But new packaging doesn’t change the reality. Block-granting and sending low-income programs to the states has historically resulted in deep cuts to core assistance programs, the inability of programs to respond when hardship rises during recessions, and wildly different access to help based on where one lives.

One example is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, or TANF. In 1996, the federal guarantee of income assistance was sent to the states as a flat-funded block grant. Since that time, the value of the block grant has declined by nearly one-third, and the share of eligible families able to turn to income assistance has dramatically fallen. During the Great Recession, as unemployment and poverty were rising, some states tried to help as many families as possible, whereas other states put up new barriers that resulted in fewer struggling families having access to help.

Now conservatives are proposing to do the same thing to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, our nation’s most important defense against hunger. SNAP not only kept 10 million people from falling into poverty last year, but the program actually boosts long-term outcomes for children, including their health as adults.

Wildly varying programs at the state level isn’t limited to TANF. Many states do not have a stellar record when it comes to acting in the best interest of their low-income citizens. Nineteen states have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, leaving 4 million Americans without health insurance. “Flint” is a one-word reminder of how unresponsive states can be to disadvantaged groups that lack political power. And while conservatives trumpet the importance of flexibility and local control, many conservative states have passed policies to “preempt” more progressive localities from implementing measures that help families, such as raising their cities’ minimum wage or passing paid-sick-days legislation so that parents don’t lose needed income or their job if the school nurse calls them to come pick up their sick child.

As candidates and lawmakers debate solutions to address poverty and mobility, the last thing we need are policies that replicate and perpetuate the geographic disparities that leave a struggling worker in Texas with no access to health insurance while his counterpart in California can access Medicaid.

Instead, we should build off of the momentum in states and localities that are alleviating poverty and investing in families, which, not coincidentally, can also significantly reduce the chronic stress associated with a wide variety of illness affecting life expectancy. As noted by the Washington Post in its coverage of the Chetty study, “Among the 100 largest commuting zones ranked by the researchers, six of the top eight for low-income life expectancies are in California” — a state that has pursued many policies that mitigate the stresses associated with poverty, such as paid parental leave, a higher minimum wage, and investments in early care and education.

A serious agenda to cut poverty and promote economic opportunity would include these policies and more, investing in job creation, expanding access to high-quality childcare, and increasing opportunities for post-secondary education and training. It would help families manage work and caregiving through paid family leave and fair, flexible, and predictable work schedules; it would protect and strengthen the safety net, which is currently reducing poverty by nearly half. Finally, it would invest in high-poverty neighborhoods, as well as remove barriers to opportunity for Americans with criminal records.

There are many reasons for lawmakers and candidates to embrace these policies, not least of which is that they are very popular with Americans across the political spectrum. But Chetty and his colleagues have now given us one more important reason to reject the failed conservative proposals and instead make needed investments to cut poverty and boost opportunity.

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