WUOMFM

Thinking outside the box for families after prison

Nov 6, 2015

Credit Michael Coghlan / Flickr Creative Commons

Each year, more than 600,000 adults are released from prison in the United States. Half of them return home to a child under the age of 18.  

When it comes to providing for a family after incarceration, having a criminal record is one of the biggest obstacles. It can be nearly impossible for formerly incarcerated parents to find a job or a place to live.

Earlier this week, the Obama administration did something to make it easier for people in prison to start fresh after they're released. President Obama called for federal employers to "ban the box" on employment applications. The "box" is the question that asks about an applicant's criminal history. 

Under the new guidelines, federal employers can only ask about a person's criminal record late in the hiring process. Instead of it being one of the very first questions employers ask applicants, it will be one of the very last. 

The thought behind this is that applicants have a chance to showcase their skills before being automatically discounted because of their criminal history. 

A number of states have already enacted "ban the box" type legislation. Michigan is not one of them. 

Michigan still lags behind in other areas of criminal justice reform - especially when it comes to juveniles. It's one of the few states that still automatically tries 17 year olds as adults. Michigan also incarcerates more kids than most other states and subjects youth to solitary confinement, something we know has a disastrous impact on kids. 

Also in the news this week were new guidelines put out by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Justice. It used to be that people could be denied or evicted from public housing because of their criminal history. Not anymore. 

Under the new guidelines, Public Housing Authorities cannot turn away folks looking for housing just because they have a criminal record. Similarly, an arrest or criminal history cannot be the basis for eviction. 

There are a few restrictions: the new guidelines do not apply to people convicted of making meth on public housing property, sex offenders, and perpetrators of domestic violence. 

These federal changes will likely have a residual impact on the five million kids in the U.S. with at least one parent who has spent time in prison. These kids face incredible odds: they are more likely to have health problems, behavior problems, and mental health issues. They're also more likely to experience additional trauma than kids without an incarcerated parent. 

Young people living in poverty are three times more likely to have a parent in prison than children in middle class families. State of Opportunity will be paying close attention to how these policies influence Michigan, and if they make a difference for parents trying to escape poverty - and access opportunity - after prison.