Housing restrictions across the country

house-keyThe revolving door between prison and homelessness is an unfortunate and well-documented feature of our criminal justice system. But it is not just those returning from prison who are at risk. Even a conviction for a relatively minor offense – and, in some instances, simply being charged with one – can result in a lifetime of housing insecurity, both for individuals and their families.  These problems are the focus of an excellent new report from the National HIRE Network that examines criminal record-based housing restrictions across the country and describes what is being done by a few jurisdictions and the federal government to put the brakes on the cycle of conviction, homelessness, and recidivism.

Although record-based housing restrictions are implemented by both private and public housing providers, it is public housing restrictions that pose the biggest risk to individuals with criminal records since their statistically lower income makes them more likely to rely on federal subsidies for housing. Attached to those subsidies are a number of federally-mandated restrictions, including a permanent and automatic ban for anyone convicted of producing methamphetamine in public housing or of a sex offense requiring lifetime registration, and permissible eviction followed by a three-year bar (that may be reduced) for drug-related criminal activity.

But, as the report discusses, those federal restrictions are just the beginning. Federal law explicitly permits subsidized housing providers to reject applicants if a household member has engaged in criminal activity that is violent, drug-related, or that “would adversely affect the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises” and that was committed within a “reasonable time” before applying. That loose standard gives providers enormous discretion to determine who gets in and who gets shut out:

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NC sex offender exclusion law held unconstitutional

ncsealcolorLast week the Fourth Circuit held unconstitutional two key provisions of a North Carolina law that made it a felony for sex offenders to be within 300 feet of certain premises that are “intended primarily for the use, care, or supervision of minors” or on premises where minors “gather for regularly scheduled educational, recreational, or social programs.”

The three-judge panel held that the first provision was overbroad under the First Amendment, while the second was unconstitutionally vague.  Interestingly, the state more or less ceded the First Amendment issue by failing to offer any evidence to meet its burden of proof regarding whether the law advanced the state’s interest in protecting minors.  This despite the fact that the district court warned the state in advance that failing to offer such evidence would be fatal to its defense of the provision.

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Manslaughter plea vacated to avoid licensing bar

A former University of Maryland student who pled guilty last April to throwing a punch that resulted in the death of a fellow student, has been allowed the benefit of a nonconviction disposition that will likely result in the expungement of his record. According to a report in the Washington Post,

Prince George’s County Judge Albert W. Northrop ordered the manslaughter conviction of Arasp Biparva in the 2014 killing of Jack Godfrey vacated. The judge also granted Biparva probation before judgment, which means the charges can later be expunged from public records.

The modified sentence will help Biparva, 25, as he finds a job in accounting, according to his attorney.

“Currently the conviction will interfere with the application process and prevent Mr. Biparva from obtaining the certifications he needs to advance his career,” his attorney, Barry Helfand, said in a request for the modified sentence.

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SCOTUS to review two collateral consequences cases

Most of the public interest in the Supreme Court’s cert grants on Friday focused on the transgender bathroom case from Virginia. But the Court also granted cert in two cases involving collateral consequences: one a First Amendment challenge to a North Carolina law barring a registered sex offender from internet access; and the other whether a man convicted in California of having consensual sex with his underage girlfriend committed an “aggravated felony” subjecting him to deportation. Here are the SCOTUSblog descriptions of the two cases:

Among the court’s other grants today, Packingham v. North Carolina is the case of Lester Packingham, a North Carolina man who became a registered sex offender after he was convicted, at the age of 21, of taking indecent liberties with a minor. Six years after Packingham’s conviction, North Carolina enacted a law that made it a felony for registered sex offenders to access a variety of websites, from Facebook to The New York Times and YouTube. Packingham was convicted of violating this law after a police officer saw a Facebook post in which Packingham celebrated, and gave thanks to God for, the dismissal of a traffic ticket. The justices today agreed to review Packingham’s contention that the law violates the First Amendment.

In Esquivel-Quintana v. Lynch, the justices will make another foray into an area of law known as “crimmigration” — the intersection of immigration and criminal law. The petitioner in the case, Juan Esquivel-Quintana, was a lawful permanent resident of the United States in 2009, when he was charged with violating a California law that makes it a crime to have sexual relations with someone under the age of 18 when the age difference between the two people involved is more than three years; he had had consensual sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 20 and 21 years old. The federal government then sought to remove Esquivel-Quintana from the United States on the ground that his conviction constituted the “aggravated felony” of “sexual abuse of a minor.” The lower courts agreed with the federal government, but now the Supreme Court will decide.

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Felony disenfranchisement, state by state

217523Felony disenfranchisement has become a hot topic as election day looms, and rightfully so given the significant impact that conviction-based loss of voting rights has on the makeup of the electorate and the slim margins by which many national elections are decided.  In the perennial swing state of Florida, for example, over 10 percent of the entire adult population is barred from voting for life because of a felony conviction. Within that group lies an astounding 21.3 percent of the state’s African-American population.

Those numbers come from a new Sentencing Project report, 6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, which attempts to determine just how many individuals are ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction in each state, and how those numbers have changed over time.  It estimates that 6.1 million individuals are ineligible to vote nationwide because of a felony conviction, and that 1 in 13 African-Americans are barred from the polls due to a conviction. 

Florida leads the nation in felony disenfranchisement, with Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee close behind.  Kentucky and Virginia (another swing state) disenfranchise the largest share of their African-American population, at 26.2 percent and 21.9 percent, respectively, with Florida close behind at 21.3 percent.  The high level of disenfranchisement in these states is largely due to the fact that all but one (Tennessee) strip individuals convicted of felonies of their voting rights for life absent discretionary executive action. 

Even in states that restore the right to vote automatically, many convicted people assume they cannot vote and therefore do not register. 

The laws on felony disenfranchisement differ widely from state to state.  Our 50-state chart on the “Loss and Restoration of Civil Rights and Firearm Privileges” and our state-by-state profiles of restoration of rights provisions describe the law and policy on felony disenfranchisement in each state, as well as the mechanisms by which convicted individuals are restored to the franchise.  

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Justice Department will enforce limits on landlord background checks

Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued new guidance asserting that housing policies that exclude people with criminal records may violate the non-discrimination provisions of the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) if they fail to consider the nature, severity, and recency of criminal conduct and if they are not narrowly tailored to protect residents or property.  The Justice Department has taken the first step toward judicial enforcement of this guidance.

On October 18 the Department’s Civil Rights Division filed a Statement of Interest in Fortune Society v. Sandcastle Towers Housing Development, a federal civil rights suit brought in the Eastern District of New York against a Brooklyn provider of low-income housing, claiming that it has a blanket policy of refusing to rent to individuals convicted of any non-traffic crime.  The Statement urges the court to decide the case based on the legal framework set forth in the HUD guidance, which employs a three-step analysis to determine whether criminal history-based housing exclusion policies amount to illegal racial discrimination prohibited by the FHA.

Though the Statement does not address the factual dispute at issue in the case, it adopts HUD’s position that blanket bans based on criminal history are likely to violate the law in failing to require an individualized assessment of applicants, because African-American applicants are more likely to have criminal histories than their white counterparts.

When the HUD guidance was issued, we predicted that it would effectively end the use of criminal background checks to automatically exclude potential renters, and greatly expand housing opportunities for all people with criminal histories, regardless of their race.  The Justice Department’s strong endorsement of the guidance is a hopeful step in that direction.  

We reprint the Department’s press release below:

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Illinois health care licenses elude those with records

2000px-Seal_of_Illinois.svgThe Illinois legislature has been generally progressive in enacting measures to help people with a criminal record avoid being stigmatized for life.  In 2003, as a state senator, President Obama sponsored one of the earliest of these measures, authorizing courts to grant certificates relieving collateral consequences. In 2011, however, Illinois took several steps backwards when it enacted legislation automatically barring some criminal record holders from ever working in a variety of licensed health care fields.  The law has since become the subject of litigation and further legislation that leaves many would-be medical licensees to face an uncertain future.

What follows is a description of the law’s enactment, subsequent court challenges, and potential legislative fixes.

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Sex offender residency restrictions in the courts: is the tide turning?

The Marshall Project has published an important new article by Maurice Chammah on legal challenges to restrictions on where registered sex offenders can work, live, and visit. See “Making the Case Against Banishing Sex Offenders: Legislators won’t touch the subject, but courts are proving more sympathetic.”  Chammah writes that activists, finding lawmakers unreceptive to any measure perceived to benefit sex offenders, “have taken the route favored by other politically unpopular groups and turned to the legal system, where they are more likely to encounter judges insulated from electoral concerns.”

 Their legal claims vary, but in numerous cases, reformers have argued that these restrictions associated with registration add up to a sort of second sentence, and that they are defined in a vague way that makes them difficult to abide by. In some cases, the plaintiffs have argued that individual towns have enacted restrictions above and beyond what states allow them to impose.

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Sex offender passport law survives challenge

anchor_service_passportA federal judge in San Francisco has dismissed a constitutional challenge to the recently enacted International Megan’s Law, which requires specially-marked passports for registered sex offenders whose offenses involved child victims, and authorizes notification to foreign governments when they travel.  The so-called “Scarlet Letter” law is specifically aimed at stopping child sex trafficking and sex tourism, and this purpose was evidently enough to justify it even though it has a far broader effect.

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