There’s been a lot of bipartisan talk lately about criminal justice reform. But action is slow.
Too slow for Pedro Collazo, dangling in a web of collateral consequences.
He did 12 years in New York’s Sing Sing prison on manslaughter charges after a beef went bad at a bar where he was a bouncer. He was 22. He has been home nine months and has a good job that allows him to care for his 16-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.
But “home” is an elusive concept for Collazo, who sleeps on a relative’s couch.
Although he completed his incarceration while earning an associate’s and bachelor’s degree, Collazo is serving a life sentence. Like millions of others, he is bound by a multitude of laws and regulations prohibiting ex-felons from a broad range of activities, notably many employment and housing opportunities.
“The most recent attempt to secure an apartment was the most overt form of discrimination I have experienced thus far,” he said, recalling his attempt to get a place in Queens. The landlord told Collazo that “he does not rent to anyone with a criminal history. I asked if there were any types of acts or if it was all, and he replied that if there was any form of criminal history he would not rent. I … did not return.”
There are more than 48,000 prohibitions, mostly among the states, but almost 1,200 at the federal level, according to an American Bar Association database. They form what Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, calls “invisible punishment.”
This everlasting retribution is particularly hard on African Americans. Studies show black people are treated more harshly than white people at every stage of the criminal justice process. To its shame, the United States has less than 5 percent of the planet’s population and but almost 25 percent of the incarcerated. More than a third of the prisoners are black, more than a fifth Hispanic. Every year, more than 600,000 inmates are released, according to the Justice Department, many not realizing that their punishment continues.
These bans “harm the life prospects of individuals with a criminal conviction long after they’ve completed serving their sentences,” said Mauer, co-author of “Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment.”
“The limitations posed through barriers to employment, housing, public benefits, and the right to vote in effect mark these people as second-class citizens,” he added. “Not only does that harm their life prospects, but it’s counterproductive for our overall public safety goals.”
These proscriptions can be very difficult for individuals to challenge. But last week, the Justice Department took action against this form of rental discrimination when it joined the Department of Housing and Urban Development in a case alleging housing bias against the convicted.
Justice officials argue that blanket bans on renting to people with criminal records “that do not consider when the conviction occurred, what the underlying conduct entailed, or what the convicted person has done since then run a substantial risk of having a disparate impact based on race or national origin.”
The agencies are supporting the Fortune Society in New York, which works with the formerly incarcerated. It employs Collazo, but he is not involved with the organization’s case against Sandcastle Towers Housing Development Fund Corp.
Sandcastle rebuts the government, saying its 917-unit apartment building, mostly studios, has 20 tenants with convictions and 70 percent of the residents are black or Latino. “The safety of existing tenants takes precedence over the purported rights of applicants with criminal records that raise legitimate safety concerns,” said Tom Shanahan, Sandcastle’s lawyer.
Among the efforts to prevent wholesale discrimination against the convicted is President Obama’s 2015 instruction to agencies imposing a delay in asking about a candidate’s criminal record until later in the hiring process, a plan known as “ban the box.” Similar legislation was introduced in Congress.
Legislation introduced in 2014 by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) would lift the federal ban on welfare and food stamps for low-level drug offenders, a ban that does not apply to murderers and kidnappers.
In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission told employers to distinguish between arrests and convictions to ensure that the use of criminal histories in employment is “job related and consistent with business necessity.”
At an event hosted by BuzzFeed last month, Booker lamented a system in which a nonviolent drug offense means “you can’t get a job, you can’t get a Pell grant, you can’t get food stamps, you can’t get public housing, you can’t get loans from banks.” There is an urgent need to correct this, he added, because “we are bereft in this country of the talent, the skills, the entrepreneurialism of so many people.”