Federal agencies reportedly (mostly) satisfied with their collateral consequences

In 2013, the Justice Department launched its Smart on Crime Initiative, which included a call for federal agencies to review collateral consequences in their own rules and policies, to determine which could be narrowed or amended without jeopardizing public safety. According to an NPR report, the results of that long-anticipated review are now in:

Amy Solomon was appointed by Attorney General Holder to oversee the twenty federal agencies charged with reviewing their regulations and policies for potential changes. She reports that hundreds of regulations were reviewed, but the vast majority were deemed “appropriately tailored for their purposes,” including HUD’s discretionary housing policies. So far, only three agencies have submitted changes.

In assessing the “appropriately tailored” conclusion in the context of HUD housing policies, NPR reporter Monica Haywood tells the story of Maurice Alexander, a 67-year-old man who was turned away from subsidized housing in the District of Columbia based on a six-year-old misdemeanor threat conviction, despite guidance from HUD encouraging property owners and agents “to develop policies and procedures that allow ex-offenders to rejoin the community.” The HUD guidance urges property owners to consider all relevant information when reviewing applications from people with a criminal record, including evidence of rehabilitation and “probability of favorable future conduct.”

Haywood concludes that, “If Alexander’s case is any indication, owners may not be taking HUD’s advice.”

The D.C. Housing Authority determined that he was eligible for three properties in his area, but he received three rejection letters, each specifically citing his criminal record as the reason he was denied.  As a result, his plans to move into subsidized housing were derailed, and he became homeless. Even with help from the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, he wasn’t able to find housing until November, nearly seven months later.

The problem is that when even when decision-makers have discretion “to review case-specific mitigating circumstances, such as how long ago the crime was committed, and how the offender has behaved since,” in practice they generally prefer not to take a risk.  The result is categorical rejection based upon status alone.  If challenged, an agency may relent in a particular case, but continue to enforce the “just say no” rule in all others.

It now appears that most federal agencies are willing to go along with this result where their own regulations and policies are concerned.

In considering what might be done to put some teeth into his exhortation to federal agencies to ensure that people with a criminal record are treated fairly, the Attorney General might consider what Colorado has recently done to ensure agency accountability. Under a law enacted in 2013, Colorado licensing agencies must now report in a public hearing on whether collateral consequences in their regulations and policies “serve public safety or commercial or consumer protection interests.” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24-34-104(9)(b)(VIII.5).  To assist the legislature in determining agency compliance, the department of regulatory agencies is required to prepare an analysis for each agency that includes “data on the number of licenses or certifications that were denied, revoked, or suspended based on a disqualification and the basis for the disqualification.” Id.  Any proposal to regulate a new profession or occupation must evaluate any proposed disqualification based on criminal record by these same standards.  Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 24-34-104.1(2)(f), (4)(b)(IV).  Colorado backs up its new procedures with a general anti-discrimination law that governs consideration of conviction in most licensed professions.  See Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24-5-101(1)(a).

Colorado is not the only state that polices its agencies, holding them to account for their treatment of people with a criminal record with evidence-based practices.  Many states include provisions in their administrative codes that compel fair consideration of conviction, and provide for the enforcement of these provisions through the courts.  See 50-state chart here.  It is unfortunate that the federal government does not.  Absent the kind of transparency and data-driven accountability that Colorado has introduced into its regulatory scheme, the default rule will inevitably be rejection.