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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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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HHS finalizes rules on child care worker screening

In February we posted about regulations proposed by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to implement criminal history screening requirements for child care workers under recent changes to the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014.  The CCRC joined a coalition of organizations led by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) in calling upon HHS to reconsider the proposed regulations. In a formal comment submitted to HHS, the coalition argued that the regulations contained screening standards that were more exclusionary than the Act requires, and that they would have a disparate impact on women, African Americans, and Latinos.

HHS has now issued the final version of those regulations.  Although the final rules are far from perfect, they do address a number of the concerns raised by the coalition.  For example, they omit language that encouraged states to require self-disclosure of criminal history, provide greater protection from inaccurate criminal record reporting, and urge states adhere to the standards laid out in the EEOC guidance by providing individualized assessments for disqualifying offenses that are added by the states but not required by the federal law.

Unfortunately, HHS chose not to back down on one of the most troubling provisions of the proposed regulations: criminal history screening of anyone age 18 or older residing in a license-exempt home that provides child care services.  Screening of those individuals is not required by the Act itself.  As the coalition’s comments explained, the requirement will almost certainly have a disproportionately adverse impact on providers of color and their families:

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Major new federal awards support second chance advocacy

Earlier this week the U.S. Departments of Justice and Labor made two major awards to the Council of State Governments (CSG) to support the development of resources on collateral consequences and second chance programs.  The awards aim to build capacity within the advocacy community to assist those seeking restoration of rights and status nationwide.

The first award is a $4.6 million contract awarded by the Labor Department for the development of the National Clean Slate Clearinghouse, a federal initiative first announced by President Obama last November.  The Clearinghouse is intended to “build capacity for legal services needed to help with record-cleaning, expungement, and related civil legal services.”

The second award is a $5 million grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to support the ongoing work of the National Reentry Resource Center (NRRC), a project developed by CSG in 2011 with federal funding earmarked in the Second Chance Act of 2007.  One exciting aspect of that award is that it will bring the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction (NICCC) into the NRRC fold.

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SUNY bans the box on admissions application

On September 14, the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York (SUNY), the nation’s largest comprehensive university system, voted to ban the box in its admissions process.  It is the first university system in the country to reverse its decision to engage in criminal history screening and remove the question from its admissions application.

The resolution laying out the policy change references the advocacy of the Education From the Inside Out (EIO) Coalition, including a 2015 case study of SUNY conducted by the Center for Community Alternatives, “Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition.”  That study found that about two-thirds of the nearly 3,000 SUNY applicants who disclose a felony conviction each year do not complete the application process (compared to only 21 percent of the overall pool of applicants) and thus are never considered for admission.  It concluded that this is the result of the daunting – and sometimes impossible – supplemental process triggered by that disclosure as well as the stigmatizing nature of the inquiry itself.

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Misdemeanants win challenge to federal firearms law

The Third Circuit has held that the federal bar to gun possession by convicted individuals cannot constitutionally be applied to two misdemeanants convicted years ago who were not sentenced to prison.  In a fractured opinion, the Third Circuit sitting en banc ruled that the two challengers never lost their Second Amendment rights, and that the government offered no persuasive justification for depriving them of the right to bear arms.  Five concurring judges thought the ruling too narrow, and would have limited this collateral consequence to individuals posing a public safety risk.  Seven judges would not allow any “as applied” Second Amendment challenges to the federal bar to gun possession by convicted individuals.

We plan to post analyses of the opinion in coming days.  In the meantime, here is Gene Volokh’s analysis from the Washington Post:

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Missouri expands expungement in a big way

missouri_flagLast week Missouri Governor Jay Nixon signed a bill that will dramatically expand the availability of expungement for people convicted of state crimes. The new law (SB-588), which will go into effect in 2018, extends expungement relief to a broad range of felonies and misdemeanors, and reduces the waiting period for expungeable felonies from 20 years to only 7 years following completion of sentence, and the waiting period for misdemeanors from 10 to 3 years. On the other hand, it will limit the number of times that a person may seek expungement during their lifetime and limit the effect of expungement. In particular, it will allow certain employers and licensing agencies to consider expunged convictions as a basis for disqualification, and in a few cases to disqualify automatically based on an expunged conviction.

Under current law, only a handful of misdemeanors and a single felony (passing bad checks) are eligible for expungement. When the new law takes effect, all misdemeanors and all non-Class A felonies will be eligible, subject to a long list of excepted offenses. The list of exceptions includes more serious offenses such as “dangerous” and violent felonies, sexual offenses, and a number of weapons and corruption offenses. As the Riverfront Times reported last week,

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Do ban-the-box policies increase racial discrimination in hiring?

Update: The National Employment Law Project has responded to these studies with a critique that we cover here.

Ban-the-box policies have become popular in recent years as a way of minimizing discrimination based on criminal history, and have been adopted by 24 states, the federal government, and a number private companies. But until recently there has been little hard data available about the general effect of those policies on employment opportunities.  A number of recent studies have begun to fill that gap, and the results have been disturbing. The consensus seems to be that while banning the box does enhance the employment prospects of those with criminal records, it also encourages employers to fall back on more general racial stereotypes about criminal history without the “box” to confirm or deny it.

Most recently, a multi-year field study by Amanda Agan (Princeton University) and Sonja Starr (University of Michigan Law School) found that although banning the box made it more likely that individuals with criminal records would receive call-backs from prospective employers, it dramatically increased the gap in call-backs between black and white applicants. Employer responses to over 15,000 fictitious job applications sent to New York and New Jersey employers after ban-the-box policies took effect showed that black applicants received 45% fewer callbacks than white applicants, up from a 7% differential before the new policy took effect:

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Former Obama officials advocate against FBI checks by (some) employers

Last week we posted a letter sent by former Attorney General Eric Holder to the Chicago City Council on behalf of Uber and Lyft, urging that it not require Uber and Lyft to subject their drivers to FBI fingerprint-based background checks applicable to taxi operators.  His main argument was that FBI records are incomplete and misleading, and that they have a discriminatory impact on minorities. It now turns out that the campaign to free these ride-sharing companies from regulatory restrictions is broad-based: Holder has reportedly written to officals in New Jersey and Atlanta considering similar measures, and other former Obama officials are also working for Uber.

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Divided Wisconsin Supreme Court declines to extend Padilla to other serious consequences

wi-largesealLast month the Wisconsin Supreme Court held in State v. Lemere that the Sixth Amendment does not require defense counsel to advise a client that a conviction for a pending charge of sexual assault could result in future commitment proceedings under chapter 980. The case could be appropriate for certiorari review in the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the scope of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, since it reflects differing views in state high courts. 1

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  1.  Ed. Note: State high courts have reached differing conclusions about the scope of the Padilla holding under the federal Constitution. The Illinois Supreme Court held in People v. Hughes that failure to warn about the possibility of civil commitment was sufficient to invalidate a plea. The Utah Supreme Court reached a contrary conclusion in State v. Trotter.
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