How is NYC like a Target Store? They’re Both Easing Re-entry for Convicts…Sort of

November 20, 2013

I spent last Tuesday at a public housing development—a.k.a. housing project—in the South Bronx. I was checking out a mobile-home-turned-computer-lab, a city program to bring broadband Internet access to public housing residents, roughly 40 percent of whom have no access at home.

One person came in to set up online rent payments, and another wanted information on unemployment benefits. But most of the people I met were applying for jobs. Places like UPS, FedEx, Deals (a discount store), and Fairway, a local supermarket chain, were among their targets. From what the people who run the mobile Internet van say, job searching is pretty typical.

So I had both housing and jobs on the brain when I heard about two related news items: Starting next month, for the first time, New York City will begin letting some people released from jails and prisons live in public housing, and come January 1, Target will take the question about criminal record off its job applications nationwide.

People coming out of jail or prison face all kinds of challenges, and it’s no surprise that housing and jobs are two big ones. Most public housing in the country bans people who are newly released. In New York, depending on your crime, you may be banned for as long as six months. That means public housing residents who spend time in jail or prison can’t go home to their families; it also means that if moving in with a family member is your only option, and that family member lives in public housing, you can’t live there.

The consequences of that are clear. Roughly 19 percent of people released from New York state prisons listed homeless shelters as their address. In fact, the city’s Homeless Services agency will help defray the cost of the new program, and two-thirds of the 150 people chosen for the two-year pilot will come from city shelters.

“We’re hoping we’ll see fathers and mothers reunited with their children, or parents who are reunited with their children and grandchildren and need their support because they’re aging parents,” Nora Reissig, the director of family services for the Housing Authority, told The New York Times.

Target’s decision came after Minnesota passed a new law saying that all private employers had to “ban the box,” i.e. get rid of the box on the application asking whether the applicant has a criminal record. Target decided to apply the rule to all of its stores across the country. (Competitor Wal-Mart made a similar decision in 2010.) The idea is to make it easier for people to get jobs, regardless of their criminal background; Target may still ask about it but will wait until later in the interview process, to make sure that former offenders are able to get a foot in the door.

New York City and Target aren’t the only ones realizing we need to change how we deal with the formerly incarcerated. In early October, Illinois governor Pat Quinn announced that public agencies under his jurisdiction may no longer ask about criminal history on applications before they consider other qualities, including experience and skills. And Minnesota passed a similar law in 2009.

The federal government, too, has been pushing for change on this front: In 2011, HUD director Shaun Donovan, wrote a letter to public housing authorities across the country, reminding them that they have discretion to decide whether former prisoners may live there, and encouraging them to exercise that right. He pointed out that “…ex-offenders who do not find stable housing in the community are more likely to recidivate than those who do, yet people returning to their communities from prison often face significant barriers to obtaining housing.”

And in 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidelines suggesting that the use of criminal background checks in employment decisions may constitute discrimination. In it, the agency pointed to both the easy access to criminal records—which are often incorrect or incomplete—and the tremendous increase in arrests and convictions—which disproportionately affect minorities—because of zero tolerance crime policies.

More than 175,000 families live in conventional public housing in New York City. (That is, not including Section 8 or other subsidized housing options.) And almost that many are on the waiting list to get in. It’s just one more reminder that anybody who rents in New York City already knows—it’s hard to find reasonably priced housing here. Same thing with jobs—it may be the hiring season for seasonal jobs, but there are still a lot of people out of work, especially at the lower end of the economic scale. As one man said to me when I asked whether he was working, “There are not that many jobs for a 50 year old man without an education.”

New York City’s pilot project is small—only 150 people over two years. And Target is but one employer. But both are important steps to realizing that our high incarceration rates have far-reaching consequences, and that criminal justice reform has to go beyond just lowering prison populations.