Federal Efforts to Improve Reentry: Federal Interagency Council on Reentry
Attorney General Eric Holder convenes the Federal Interagency Reentry Council. (Photo courtesy of Department of Justice)
For those leaving incarceration, overcoming the barriers to successful reentry may mean the difference between living a healthy and fulfilling life in a community and facing instability and potentially homelessness. Understanding the ways federal programs and systems interact with the formerly incarcerated is critical to helping individuals overcome these barriers. The Federal Interagency Reentry Council serves as the first-ever Executive Branch council to focus specifically on coordinating and advancing effective reentry efforts for communities. Chaired by Attorney General Eric Holder, the Reentry Council includes 20 agencies that all have a stake in effectively integrating individuals back into communities after incarceration—including those who focus on employment, housing and homelessness services, mental health, physical health, and public safety. Since the first meeting in January 2011, the Reentry Council has been able to bring together leaders at the cabinet level to improve the ways federal systems work for this population, improve public understanding of reentry, and serve as a go-to resource in concert with the National Reentry Resource Center. USICH spoke with Amy Solomon, Senior Advisor to the Assistant Attorney General at the Office of Justice Programs at the Department of Justice, about the work of the Reentry Council and specifically about the ways we can improve our understanding of federal programs’ interaction with people leaving incarceration.
The Reentry Council achieves its goals by coordinating and leveraging federal resources to be used in the field, and using public education to shine a light on solutions to recidivism and victimization. The Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Programs, also supports jurisdictions and nonprofit partners who implement the over 400 programs nation-wide supported by the Second Chance Act. The Second Chance Act was signed into law on April 9, 2008, authorizing federal grants to government agencies and nonprofit organizations to provide employment assistance, substance abuse treatment, housing, family programming, mentoring, victims support, and other services that can help reduce recidivism.These programs range from juvenile mentorship to housing placement assistance, and all address challenges faced by those reentering the community from incarceration. Most recently, the Office of Justice Programs put out new guidance that clarifies the wide range of legal assistance that may be an appropriate use of funds for grantees, as legal assistance is often a critical support to improve reentry.
If you have heard of the Reentry Council, it is probably primarily in their work on Reentry Mythbusters, a series of fact sheets meant to help communities and those formerly incarcerated clarify federal policy. Ten of the myth busters tackle access to federal benefits, such as Medicaid, TANF, Social Security, food assistance, and Veterans benefits. The theme to many of these MythBusters is that pre-release procedures are often available, meaning that access to key health care and assistance can be put in place while a person is incarcerated, and then ‘activated’ the day of release. The goal is to stabilize the reentry population immediately after release, when they are most at risk of relapse and reoffending.“A lot of laws and policies need to be explained better as they pertain to this population,” notes Solomon, “and we should see better outcomes when people – like Veterans, for example – are aware of the assistance they are eligible for.”
Public Housing Assistance
Specifically, the issue of eligibility for public housing assistance kicked off the Mythbustersseries. “In some communities, public housing agencies or landlords impose eligibility limits that are more restrictive than HUD regulations,” notes Solomon. The Mythbuster states that, “Public Housing Authorities have great discretion in determining their admissions and occupancy policies for exoffenders. While PHAs can choose to ban ex-offenders from participating in public housing and Section 8 programs, it is not HUD policy to do so. In fact, in many circumstances, formerly incarcerated people should not be denied access.”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan has issued letters to both public housing authorities and landlords receiving subsidies about eligibility of resources for those with criminal convictions. Two letters here clarify who is eligible for resources and encourage local PHAs and managers that work with HUD housing vouchers not to bar all individuals with a criminal record, only those who are ineligible under the federal HUD regulations. There are only two convictions which ban individuals from HUD housing assistance outright:
- If any member of the household is subject to a lifetime registration requirement under a State sex offender registration program; and,
- If any household member has ever been convicted of drug-related criminal activity for manufacture or production of methamphetamine on the premises of federally assisted housing.
The work of the Reentry Council in this area is helping make the rules and policies more transparent. “We’ve heard about people taking the Mythbuster and letters directly to their local PHA to help explain their eligibility for assistance. Some of their stories speak to the mutual benefits of reuniting families, getting a person off the streets or out of shelter, and hopefully stabilizing their lives in a way that will promote better work, crime, and sobriety outcomes.”
Another barrier that Ms. Solomon specifically noted is that to employment for those who were formerly incarcerated. Because one in three Americans has a criminal record, it is important that employers and job seekers understand the facts around the role of a criminal record in hiring decisions. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a member of the Reentry Council, recently revised their guidance this spring, stating that a criminal record should only bar someone from employment when the conviction is closely related to the job, after considering (1) the nature of the job, (2) the nature and seriousness of the offense, and (3) the length of time since it occurred. This guidance, along with Federal Non-Discrimination laws, will help providers, advocates, and employers make informed decisions when working with this population. The Reentry Council has put all of this information and guidance together for providers to better assist individuals in their employment search who have a criminal record.
Building on that momentum, the Department of Labor recently issued a Training and Employment Guidance Letter to the entire public workforce system. This guidance provides explicit steps that the public workforce system – like One Stops – should take to ensure compliance with the EEOC and other nondiscrimination laws, to educate their employer customers, and, importantly, to promote employment opportunities for people with criminal records. The Department of Labor also assists individuals through the Reintegration of Ex-Offenders program, which is designed to assist ex-offenders find employment and make a smooth transition to community life through an employment-centered program that includes mentoring, job training, and other transtiional services implemented by local faith-based and community organizations in collaboration with DOL One Stop Centers.
And just last month, the Federal Trade Commission announced a $2.6 million civil penalty in a settlement agreement with HireRight Solutions a nationwide employment background screening agency, for allegedly violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The FTC alleged that the company failed to ensure criminal history information was accurate and up to date. They also failed to give consumers copies of their reports and to investigate consumer disputes. We hear this is all too common, and hope this settlement will help bring needed attention to the issue.
For communities or providers that are looking to improve their services for people who were recently incarcerated, the Reentry Council and the National Reentry Resource Center is a great place to begin gathering information about program models. Here’s some specific ways Ms. Solomon shared:
- The “What Works in Reentry” section of the Reentry Resource Center is a way for anyone to search for evidence-based reentry interventions in the areas of housing, mental health, and employment, with more resources forthcoming.
- The FAQs provide great information on all the key reentry issues that practitioners deal with: housing, health, education, employment, family issues, and much more.
- The state-specific service directories provide information – where it’s available – about locally-available reentry resources.
- If you’re looking to improve your services or to begin serving this population at your organization, check out the interactive map on the National Reentry Resource Center or contact your State Reentry Coordinator. It’s a great starting point to see what’s going on.You can click on your state and see all the reentry-related grantees and agencies working on this issue.