Why Congress Should Pass the REDEEM Act

At a time of historic polarization in Washington, one issue has garnered strong bipartisan support: criminal justice reform. Exhibit A is the list of strange bedfellows who have recently joined forces through the “transpartisan” Coalition for Public Safety. This new effort has brought together leading progressive organizations such as the Center for American Progress and the ACLU, alongside influential conservative groups such as Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, Freedomworks, and the Koch Brothers.  With George Soros’ Open Society Foundation also serving as a longtime force pushing for criminal justice reform, this reflects rare left-right synergy.

Much of the bipartisan focus in Washington has centered on the need for sentencing reform, through proposals like tackling overly harsh mandatory minimums. Sentencing reform is urgently needed, and bipartisan efforts such as Senator Lee’s (R-UT) and Senator Durbin’s (D-IL) Smarter Sentencing Act provide cause for optimism.

But the problems with our broken criminal justice system don’t end when an individual is released from jail or prison. Every year, more than 600,000 Americans are released into their communities after serving their time. Moreover, millions more end up with criminal records without doing any time–through arrests that don’t lead to conviction or through probation-only sentences.

All in all, between 70 million and 100 million Americans—or as many as one in three of us—now have some type of criminal record. And due to the rise of technology and the internet—as well as federal and state policy decisions—having even a minor criminal record can stand in the way of employment, housing, education and training, building good credit, and even meager public assistance. For example, nearly 9 in 10 employers use background checks in hiring, and 4 in 5 landlords conduct background checks on potential tenants. Even a minor criminal record can mean every door is closed to you as you seek to get back on your feet.

Even a minor criminal record can mean every door is closed to you as you seek to get back on your feet.

The result? Punishment has been transformed from a temporary to a lifelong experience for many justice-involved individuals. In addition, mass incarceration and the barriers associated with a criminal record have come to serve as major drivers of poverty in the US. This has broad implications—not just for the tens of millions of affected individuals, but also for their families, their communities, and our national economy. For example, the cost of shutting people with criminal records out of the labor market runs as high as $65 billion per year in GDP terms. Thus, as the criminal justice reform train continues to move forward full speed ahead, it’s imperative that efforts include reforms to give people a second chance.

Senator Rand Paul’s and Senator Cory Booker’s REDEEM Act, introduced yesterday, is a good first step. Take a look at this summary if you want to see everything it does. Here are three key provisions, which, if enacted, would go a long way toward putting second chances within reach for Americans with criminal records.

1. Creates a mechanism for cleaning up a federal criminal record. As my colleague Sharon Dietrich and I explained in a recent Center for American Progress report, cleaning up a criminal record is one of the most powerful tools for overcoming the barriers associated with a criminal record. While state laws vary a great deal, the vast majority of states have “expungement” or “sealing” mechanisms to allow people to put their criminal records behind them. In fact, as the Vera Institute documented in a recent report, 23 states broadened these laws between 2009-2014 through efforts such as expanding the categories of offenses that can be expunged or shortening wait times.

Yet despite the exponential increase in federal criminal prosecutions that resulted from the War on Drugs, there is no such mechanism to expunge federal records, even those resulting from arrests that did not lead to a conviction. Federal law thus lags far behind the states. By creating a judicial mechanism for sealing federal nonviolent records, the REDEEM Act thus fills an important void. (We have called for including all federal arrests that did not result in conviction, given that the presumption of innocence is a bedrock principle of our criminal justice system—but the REDEEM Act is a good first step.)

 2. Improves the accuracy of FBI background checks. Understandably, employers and other users of background checks believe the information presented there is reliable. However, that information is often incorrect or not up to date. FBI background checks in particular are notoriously inaccurate – some 600,000 jobseekers received an inaccurate FBI check in 2012. One of the most common problems with FBI background checks is that they fail to provide the outcome of a criminal case. Given that many cases don’t result in convictions or are resolved on lesser charges, having a criminal record that has not been updated to reflect the outcome of criminal charges can be highly prejudicial.

In recognition of this widespread problem, the REDEEM Act would require the FBI to review each record for accuracy and completeness before it can be provided to a requesting party. It would also prohibit the FBI from distributing criminal record information pertaining to arrests that are more than two years old if they don’t contain a final outcome of the case.

3. Reforms the harsh and outdated lifetime ban on public assistance for people with felony drug convictions. In many states, even meager public assistance is out of reach for people with certain types of criminal records. The 1996 welfare law included a lifetime ban on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) for people convicted of a felony drug offense. The law gives states the option to modify or waive the bans, and many have. Yet most states continue to enforce the ban in whole or in part for TANF, SNAP, or both. This outdated and harsh policy deprives struggling families of nutrition assistance and pushes them even deeper into poverty at precisely the moment when they are seeking to regain their footing. According to The Sentencing Project, in the 12 states with the most punitive policies, an estimated 180,000 women were subject to the TANF ban in 2013. The REDEEM Act would lift this ban for people who were convicted for drug use or possession. (The ban would remain in effect for people convicted of drug distribution crimes.)

As bipartisan members of Congress take up criminal justice reform, we must not lose sight of the need to include reforms to give people a second chance. Passing the REDEEM Act would be a great start.



A 5-Step Plan for Fighting Senior Poverty

When we talk about fighting poverty in the United States, the conversation is often focused on preventative measures such as education or jobs. Thanks to this focus, poverty prevention programs, policies, and corresponding social movements have made significant progress in raising wages, empowering people, reducing poverty levels and changing lives.

However, when it comes to an increasing population of low-to-no-income seniors, many preventative measures come too late.  Education and retraining initiatives, savings plans, and job creation programs won’t help someone in her 70s or 80s who is struggling just to cover room and board after a lifetime of low-wage labor.

But it’s not too late to protect the rights of seniors to a basic living.

For this growing demographic of aging poor, we cannot hold up our hands and say we should have helped them 50 years ago, or helped their parents a century ago. We must, and we can, take action.  By updating the federal safety-net programs we already have in place, we can move towards an economically stable future for people as they age.

Here is a 5-step plan to fight senior poverty:

Strengthen the existing safety net. Senior poverty would be much worse without Social Security, the Supplemental Security Income program, and Medicare and Medicaid. These programs are almost single-handedly responsible for reducing the official measure of senior poverty from 35 percent in 1960 to 9 percent today. But seniors today are rapidly losing ground. Proposals to cut Social Security benefits, increase Medicare cost-sharing for beneficiaries, or limit Medicaid coverage should all be rejected. Instead lawmakers must advance proposals to ensure that these benefits meet the growing need.

Improve the Supplemental Security Income program. The poorest two million people over age 65 receive SSI payments, but the rate of seniors in extreme poverty is increasing in part because this program — originally intended to lift all seniors out of poverty — has not been significantly updated since it was first passed in 1972. As a result, SSI essentially still leaves millions of the country’s most needy seniors in poverty. The maximum federal benefit for an individual is $721 per month (though some states kick-in a small supplement), but to be eligible a senior must have less than $2,000 in savings. In addition to the limit on savings, the SSI income disregard limits the amount of income someone can have from another source, such as from a pension or Social Security benefit, and still receive SSI. But the current SSI income disregard allows for only $20 of additional general income or $65 of earned income before there is a reduction in benefits. Updating the SSI income disregard would mean just a little more money for people for whom every dollar counts. The Supplemental Security Restoration Income Act, poised for reintroduction in Congress this spring, offers an opportunity to modernize the program.

Increase the availability of programs that provide assistance with healthcare and long-term care costs. One of the drivers of seniors’ economic vulnerability is the rising cost of health care. Proposals that would shift more of those costs to seniors will only drive more seniors into poverty. Instead, the health care programs that are designed to help the poorest seniors afford their health care – Medicaid, Medicare Savings Programs, and the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy – should be expanded, and out-of-pocket costs should be reduced or eliminated.

Push for federal support for the long-term care safety net. With 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, the number of people needing long-term care coverage is projected to rise from 12 million today to 27 million in 2050. Few seniors are prepared to pay for the costs of long-term care. For poor and economically vulnerable seniors, proposals that rely on them to save more of their already inadequate incomes in order to cover these costs are simply unrealistic. Public programs must be strengthened and modified to meet long-term care needs and to encourage the provision of more home- and community- based services.

Reauthorize the Older Americans Act (OAA). The OAA provides funding for critical services that seniors rely on to remain independent and healthy. Services include meals, benefit counseling, caregiver support, transportation, health promotion, legal services, and more. While these services are not always limited to poor older adults, seniors in poverty rely on them heavily to make ends meet and to ensure that their basic needs are met. It is time for Congress to renew its commitment to providing seniors with essential social services by reauthorizing the Older Americans Act.

We have done a great job reducing senior poverty in our nation. The next steps we must take are clear, and millions of seniors are relying on us to do the right thing and take action now.




Closing the Justice Gap for Low-Income New Yorkers

Each year, thousands of New Yorkers find themselves in Housing Court facing eviction.  All court cases are important of course, but the potential ramifications of eviction cases are particularly far-reaching.  We know that evicted families experience dislocation and, in many cases, homelessness.  This kind of residential instability increases the likelihood of all sorts of negative outcomes, including failure in school, depression, and poverty. Put simply, the evidence suggests that stable housing is the foundation of family well-being.

Despite the grave potential consequences, nine out of ten low-income New Yorkers who go to Housing Court do so without the benefit of a lawyer.  It is difficult to navigate the courts without assistance.  Filling out the necessary paperwork, requesting repairs, and negotiating with a landlord’s attorney are no simple matters, especially when you are facing the threat of losing your home.

In a perfect world, everyone facing eviction would receive legal representation.  In many cases, the presence of a lawyer can be the difference between keeping your home and getting evicted.  We can and must do more to increase the pool of lawyers available to serve Housing Court litigants.

Like many others, I have worked diligently in recent years to expand state funding for legal services that deal with the “essentials of life” like eviction.  In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council have increased funding for legal assistance programs; the City has also moved to consolidate their administration of legal service funding under the leadership of Steve Banks, the commissioner of the Human Resources Administration.

Meeting our responsibilities to the most disadvantaged in society is not a luxury and it isn’t a choice – it is a simple matter of justice.

Another key player has been the Robin Hood Foundation, which focuses exclusively on combatting poverty in New York.  Since 1988, Robin Hood has raised more than $1.95 billion in dollars, goods and services for vulnerable New Yorkers.  This includes a sustained commitment to supporting civil legal service providers, including the Legal Aid Society and New York Legal Assistance Group.

Make no mistake: funding for legal services is fundamental to the ability of courts to perform our constitutional mission.  In these difficult financial times, we often talk about the challenges of keeping the courthouse doors open.  But simply keeping the doors open is not enough.  If what’s happening inside those doors doesn’t amount to equal justice, you might as well close the courts.

Despite the best efforts of the courts, the city and private foundations, there still exists a significant justice gap in New York City, to say nothing about courts around the country. In recent weeks, we have taken a step to address this gap in our city.

The New York court system has joined Robin Hood, the Human Resources Administration, and the Center for Court Innovation to create a new program, Poverty Justice Solutions.  The idea behind it is simple.  Each year, Poverty Justice Solutions will take 20 recent law school graduates and place them in two-year fellowships with civil legal service providers in New York. These attorneys will work at different agencies but they will all be dedicated to the same goal: helping low-income New Yorkers preserve their housing and prevent homelessness.

The first Poverty Justice Solutions attorneys will be selected this spring and will begin work following their graduation in June.  These new attorneys will combat poverty by helping to reduce evictions and improve the financial stability of participating tenants.  They will also help close the justice gap, providing hundreds of low-income New Yorkers with legal assistance that they wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.  In the process, Poverty Justice Solutions will also help address the challenges of a constricted legal job market, providing jobs for 20 new lawyers each year.

The Old Testament tells us: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, rich and poor, high and low alike.”  My judicial philosophy is to make sure that justice is done.  I don’t consider myself an activist judge, but I do consider myself proactive in the pursuit of justice.  That’s the idea behind Poverty Justice Solutions – and behind the quest to improve access to civil legal services in general.  Meeting our responsibilities to the most disadvantaged in society is not a luxury and it isn’t a choice – it is a simple matter of justice.



Lessons from Across the Pond: What the US Should and Shouldn’t Take Away from the United Kingdom’s Social Policy

Conservatives have long called for combining and freezing federal funding for key health, nutrition, and income security programs and then handing those funds over to the states. As evidenced by the track record of TANF and several other block grants, this strategy has historically resulted in large cuts to benefits, and made block-granted programs much less responsive to recessions and increases in population and unemployment.

Last year, Representative Paul Ryan proposed the most recent conservative block-grant proposal. Under his Opportunity Grant program, funding for the nation’s bedrock nutrition assistance program (SNAP) and several other means-tested programs would be combined into a single block grant with a fixed annual funding level. Rep. Ryan says he draws inspiration from the United Kingdom’s Universal Credit—a new means-tested cash entitlement benefit that consolidates six current benefits, including the Housing Benefit, Child Tax Credit, and Job Search Allowance. The Universal Credit has gotten off to a slow start in the UK due to implementation challenges, but the government says it will be fully implemented by 2019.

We will hear more about the Universal Credit this week. At an event at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Iain Duncan Smith, UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—and the architect of the policy—will keynote a discussion of what the United States can learn from the Universal Credit.

There are already a long list of effective homegrown practices and policy reforms that are seeing results.

The fact is the Universal Credit doesn’t even remotely resemble Rep. Ryan’s proposal—or, for that matter, TANF or other block grants in the United States. Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that the Universal Credit will be an entitlement to eligible low-income people, one that is administered centrally by a single government agency.

We’re all for learning what we can from other countries, but the Universal Credit is not the most relevant policy for the United States to draw on. Among the key differences limiting its relevance to our system is the fact that one of the main problems the UK is trying to address—financial penalties for work—is far less of an issue in the United States. This is due to the design of our Earned Income Tax Credit—which kicks in at the first dollar of earnings—and the limited nature of other means-tested benefits for low-income unemployed people.

Moreover, a primer the Center for American Progress co-authored last year on the Universal Credit notes several concerns with the policy. For example, the UK’s Housing Benefit is currently a locally administered in-kind housing benefit paid directly to landlords on behalf of low-income tenants. Under the Universal Credit it will be paid directly to tenants as a cash benefit and administered centrally by the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions. This has raised concerns about how tenants, especially vulnerable ones, will manage direct payments of housing costs, and what happens if they fall behind on rent.

We do, however, welcome a conversation on how the Universal Credit can spur momentum stateside to reduce the administrative burdens associated with navigating multiple safety net programs. But it is worth noting there are already a long list of effective homegrown practices and policy reforms on this front that are seeing results. For example, the Affordable Care Act created a new, simplified system that states can use to enroll eligible people into Medicaid and CHIP, including an option to enroll people based on their SNAP eligibility.

Beyond the Universal Credit, when it comes to social policy more generally there is indeed a lot the US could learn from the UK: the UK has stronger labor market protections, more modern workplace standards, and a longstanding commitment to ensuring that working-age people—whether in or out of work, and with or without children—have access to health care for free as well as a minimum floor of housing and income assistance. While we don’t know if these types of lessons and reforms will be discussed at this week’s AEI event, any discussion of the UK’s Universal Credit and its relevance to US social policy should not be divorced from this broader context.

To that end, here are a few things we hope US policymakers do consider when taking lessons from across the pond:

  • Health services and almost all prescription drugs are free for everyone in the UK. But in the US, 22 states have refused to implement the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, leaving millions without access to care and subject to higher “marginal tax rates.”
  • In the UK, all low-income people who rent are guaranteed means-tested housing assistance; in the US only about one-quarter of eligible low-income renters receive help.
  • The UK guarantees means-tested unemployment assistance to low-income people who are unemployed—a single unemployed person without children is eligible for weekly grants that total about $450 a month[i]. The US does not have a means-tested unemployment assistance program that guarantees benefits nationwide. Low-income people can access SNAP, but the benefits are much more modest, and can only be used for food.
  • The UK provides a family allowance to all low- and middle-income families with children through its Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit. In 2015, a single parent with one child and no earnings would be eligible for about $6,300 as a basic income guarantee under just these two benefits. While the US has a Child Tax Credit, it is modest by comparison and completely excludes families with no or very low earnings.

Although some of these programs—means-tested unemployment assistance, Housing Benefit, and Child Tax Credit—will be brought into the Universal Credit, they will continue to function as entitlements with the same base benefit levels.

Beyond benefit differences, it’s also worth noting that the UK has a national minimum wage, which is updated annually and currently equal to about $9.50 an hour (it will go higher when updated later this year) and gives almost all workers a legal entitlement to paid sick days. In addition, it provides paid family leave and a comparatively expansive system of pre-K and child-care assistance. This may help explain why women’s labor force participation has grown steadily since 2000 in the UK, while trending downward in the US.

In short, the US has a lot to learn from the UK. But we should glean our biggest lessons from the UK’s policy and reform successes that have improved basic labor standards, strengthened work-family balance, and fortified benefits for low-incomes families. Efforts like these have led to better outcomes for individuals and families, including lower poverty rates, than we have accomplished to date in the United States.

[i] This and other UK benefits amounts are converted into US dollars using an exchange rate that adjusts for cost of living differences between the UK and US.



Congress Should Keep Funding Home Visiting—It Works

Despite its success, the Maternal Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program is in danger of expiration without quick action from Congress.

Ninety percent of a person’s brain development occurs before the age of five. This means that children’s experiences between the time they are born and the time they enter school are critically important for setting them on a path to success. Unfortunately, not all children have the supportive environment they need to thrive – especially children living in households where they are exposed to economic instability, domestic violence, child abuse, or significant mental health challenges.

The good news is that public policy can address these risk factors. The Maternal Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program is a proven solution that is helping parents provide the nurturing environment children need. In the program, home visitors – who can be health, social service, or child development professionals – work with expectant mothers and families with young children to assess their needs and to refer them to other services. They also provide coaching and parent education to promote healthy child development.

MIECHV has a strong track record of success. Rigorous evaluations and research of home visiting services demonstrates that the program ultimately improves health and saves money for taxpayers. The services lead to tangible results like better birth outcomes; improved child health; better educational attainment for moms; improved school readiness; reduced child abuse and neglect; and more economically self-sufficient families. In addition, the federal grant program has allowed the home visiting program to reach more people in states and tribal communities across the country; it has also helped connect home visiting with other early childhood services to ensure that families can access the continuum of social supports—from health services, to income support, to early education.

MIECHV expiring due to a lack of congressional action would be devastating, as it serves some of the most vulnerable families in the country. Recent analysis found that most women participating in MIECHV-funded home visiting were young, single parents who did not have formal schooling beyond high school. The majority of these women made less than $1,000 a month on their own.

These families know how critical MIECHV support can be. Christina had a challenging upbringing in a home where she experienced abuse, homelessness, and poverty. When she became pregnant at age 15, she enrolled in the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) program. Throughout her pregnancy and the first two years of her child’s life, she received regular visits from a trained nurse who monitored their health. The nurse also provided support and guidance to ensure that Christina’s baby achieved the appropriate developmental milestones. Participating in NFP gave Christina the skills and confidence to be a good parent and also achieve her own life goals – she has since been able to complete her high school education and is on a path toward success for herself and her child.

Authorization for MIECHV expires at the end of March and without action from Congress, states and tribes will be unable maintain services for all of the children and families served by MIECHV funded home visiting. In order to prevent this harm to already vulnerable families, Congress must act quickly to reauthorize MIECHV at current funding levels before it expires on March 31st.

Evidence-based home visiting is a solution that improves the lives of thousands of families across the country. Failing to extend this critical lifeline now is unacceptable. Congress must reauthorize MIECHV to create more opportunities for low-income children and their families to thrive.