First Person

What I Told the Attorney General and the HUD Secretary About My Criminal Record

After four decades of mass incarceration and over-criminalization in the United States, as many as 1 in 3 Americans now have some type of criminal record, and nearly half of U.S. children now have a parent with a record.

Today, as part of the Department of Justice’s inaugural National Reentry Week, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro visited Philadelphia to hear how brushes with the criminal justice system have stood in the way of employment, housing, and more—and how people have persevered.

Here are three stories told to Attorney General Lynch and Secretary Castro—they are representative of the experiences of millions of Americans held back by a criminal record.

Ronald Lewis: “So many doors have been closed in my face I know what wood tastes like.”

More than 10 years ago, when I was 25, I was convicted of two misdemeanors.  In one case, I was on the street with my brother when he was selling drugs, and I warned him that the police were coming. In the other, I tried to steal a pocketbook at Neiman Marcus.  I did my probation for these cases, and have been a law-abiding citizen ever since.

I am a father, a husband, a son, a friend, and ambitious to get ahead in life. I got a building engineering license in hopes of getting a good job. I am starting my own company so that I can give other people second chances working for me. I give freely of my time to be a role model to kids in my community and to younger men who are tempted by the streets. But to so many people, I am an “ex-offender,” and nothing more.

I’ll never forget the first time I was turned down for a job because of my record. I had been on the job for about a month when my background check came back. I was called into Human Resources and told they had to fire me because of my record. Security was called to immediately remove me from the building. It was the worst feeling of my life. It was humiliating to tell my family, who had been so proud of me, that I had failed again.

That was the first of many times that I was turned away from jobs I was qualified for because of my minor record. More times than I can count, companies have told me, “You’ll be great. Your skills are exactly what we are looking for.” But then that question about my background comes up.  So many doors have been closed in my face, I know what wood tastes like.  And because of my record, I can’t even take my kids on school field trips.  Do you know how devastating that is?

I do not and will not give up. My family is depending on me. My children are depending on me. I hope that one day, my record can be cleared, reflecting who I am now. That is why I am speaking out to support the Clean Slate Act, a bill in the Pennsylvania legislature that would automatically seal non-violent misdemeanor convictions after someone has remained crime-free for 10 years, as I have. This law would make a world of difference for people like me—and for our families and kids.

Helen Stokes: “I was denied from senior housing because of my arrest record”

I was 56 the first time I was ever arrested, in 2008. My husband, whom I later divorced, attacked me. When I called the police, he claimed that I had assaulted him. Can you imagine? Then two years later, after I took his ATM card for our joint account so that he wouldn’t spend our money on drugs, I was arrested for theft. Both times, the charges were dropped. I have never been convicted of a crime in my whole life.

After that, even though I had not been convicted, I got turned down for jobs because of my arrest record. Eventually, in 2014, I went to Community Legal Services for help. My lawyer got my cases expunged, and I thought that was the last I would hear of them.

I can’t even take my kids on school field trips. Do you know how devastating that is?

But about six months later, when I was trying to move into subsidized housing for seniors, I was denied admission because of the record that I wasn’t supposed to have anymore. I couldn’t believe it. I called the lawyer who had gotten my cases expunged, and she called the property managers and provided my expungement orders, but they still wouldn’t let me in. I had tears in my eyes when I got the rejection letter. Even after I told RealPage, the company that had done the background check, about my expungements and filed a dispute, they again reported my expunged cases to another senior housing facility, which also rejected me.

By this point, I was panicked. My house was being foreclosed on since I could no longer afford the mortgage payments after my divorce. I was worried that I would end up on the street or that I could no longer live on my own.

Eventually, a social worker at Community Legal Services helped me find a senior apartment, where I will soon be moving. It is a huge relief. But I don’t understand why senior housing would hold cases like this against me to begin with, given that I wasn’t even convicted.

Community Legal Services has since filed a class action lawsuit against RealPage for illegally reporting expunged cases like mine. I am proud to be the main plaintiff in that case, because I think justice must be done for other people like me. Background check companies like RealPage must learn that they cannot report expunged cases. But housing facilities should also give people like me a fair chance instead of turning people away just because of an arrest record.

Tyrone Peake: “Employers weren’t allowed to hire me because of my 30-year-old record”

When I was 18 years old, I was arrested with a friend for trying to steal a car. We had our girlfriends in town for the weekend. When one of the girls’ mothers insisted that she come home, we tried to steal a car to take her back. Mind you, I couldn’t even drive—and we weren’t even able to get the car started. But we had broken open the ignition, and I ended up being convicted of attempted car theft. I did three years of probation, and I never got in trouble again.

I am now 53 years old. I raised three daughters who are now all grown up. All my life, I’ve had a passion to help people, so I decided to pursue an associate’s degree so I could do health care work, graduating from Community College of Philadelphia in 2014. I never dreamed that a mistake I made when I was 18 years old would follow me for the rest of my life. But until recently, my decades-old record kept me from getting a full-time job in the field I’d gone to school to work in.

After I got my degree, I learned that Pennsylvania had a law that prohibited me from working in long-term care jobs because of my record. Even though more than 30 years had passed without me getting into trouble again, employers that wanted to hire me were not allowed to because of the law.  I eventually got a part-time job working as a recovery specialist, but the law prevented me from doing other jobs with the organization no matter how qualified I was—and no matter how much time had passed since my conviction.

Last year, Community Legal Services and pro bono lawyers challenged the law on behalf of me and other Pennsylvanians who had unfairly been stopped from working in jobs that we should be able to have. In December, Pennsylvania’s appellate court agreed with us and struck down the law.

The problems that I had because of my record caused me to doubt myself—and my future—for a long time. But I have a lot of joy knowing that this unfair law has been changed, there is a lot of hope and opportunity for me and others who come behind me and are trying to get ahead.

Editor’s Note: All three of these individuals were represented by lawyers in Community Legal Services’ Employment Unit. They gave permission for CLS and to share their stories to help shine a light on the lifelong barriers associated with having even a minor record.

To commemorate National Reentry Week, will feature posts throughout the week by leaders on reentry—all exploring the barriers to opportunity facing people with criminal records, and why addressing these barriers is a critical part of criminal justice reform.



A Real Agenda to Cut Poverty

This article originally appeared on Real Clear Policy.

The American Dream is premised on the idea that the circumstances of your birth should not determine how far you can rise. Yet a growing body of research shows that a child’s ZIP code too often limits her life chances, with factors such as failing schools, dangerous streets, lack of quality jobs, and a dearth of community resources coming together to perpetuate poverty. And a new report suggests even more bad news for the American Dream: As it turns out, where you live isn’t just correlated with how high up the ladder you can climb; it also helps to determine the point at which you fall off altogether.

Multiple studies have confirmed that the rich typically live longer than those in struggling families, and that this gap is growing. A new study from Raj Chetty and his colleagues underscores that this gap is unconscionable, with nearly 15 years’ difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest American men and over 10 years’ difference for American women. But the study reveals something new as well: that the gap is place-based, with significant differences in life expectancy among lower-income individuals based on where they live.

Among the top 100 commuting zones, poor individuals had longer life expectancies in wealthier areas with more educated individuals. A poor person in New York City, for example, is expected to live years longer than a person with the same income in Detroit. In other words, there are not just “two Americas” — the rich and the rest of us — but also dozens and dozens of Americas on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, with policy choices dramatically shaping not just quality of life but also the length of it.

Where you live isn't just correlated with how high up the ladder you can climb; it also helps to determine the point at which you fall off altogether.

These disturbing findings come out as issues of poverty, inequality, and mobility have taken center stage in the political conversation. Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Tim Scott recently held a GOP “poverty summit” in South Carolina. Further, the speaker has indicated that later this spring, House Republicans will be releasing a “white paper” synthesizing their ideas to cut poverty.

But if past is prologue, many of the House’s recommendations will be a recipe to exacerbate and perpetuate the disparities that Chetty’s study unearthed. First, under the Republicans’ budget blueprint, struggling families would suffer no matter where they live. The recently proposed House budget protects tax cuts for millionaires while deriving more than three-fifths of its cuts from programs that help low- and moderate-income people — programs that have cut the nation’s poverty rate nearly in half.

But it gets worse. The solutions favored by conservatives have typically been to consolidate and flat-fund federal programs that are currently helping struggling families, and to send these programs to the states. There have been many euphemisms for this policy over time: block grants, “empowering local communities,” “increased flexibility,” and, most recently, Speaker Ryan’s “opportunity grants.” But new packaging doesn’t change the reality. Block-granting and sending low-income programs to the states has historically resulted in deep cuts to core assistance programs, the inability of programs to respond when hardship rises during recessions, and wildly different access to help based on where one lives.

One example is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, or TANF. In 1996, the federal guarantee of income assistance was sent to the states as a flat-funded block grant. Since that time, the value of the block grant has declined by nearly one-third, and the share of eligible families able to turn to income assistance has dramatically fallen. During the Great Recession, as unemployment and poverty were rising, some states tried to help as many families as possible, whereas other states put up new barriers that resulted in fewer struggling families having access to help.

Now conservatives are proposing to do the same thing to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, our nation’s most important defense against hunger. SNAP not only kept 10 million people from falling into poverty last year, but the program actually boosts long-term outcomes for children, including their health as adults.

Wildly varying programs at the state level isn’t limited to TANF. Many states do not have a stellar record when it comes to acting in the best interest of their low-income citizens. Nineteen states have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, leaving 4 million Americans without health insurance. “Flint” is a one-word reminder of how unresponsive states can be to disadvantaged groups that lack political power. And while conservatives trumpet the importance of flexibility and local control, many conservative states have passed policies to “preempt” more progressive localities from implementing measures that help families, such as raising their cities’ minimum wage or passing paid-sick-days legislation so that parents don’t lose needed income or their job if the school nurse calls them to come pick up their sick child.

As candidates and lawmakers debate solutions to address poverty and mobility, the last thing we need are policies that replicate and perpetuate the geographic disparities that leave a struggling worker in Texas with no access to health insurance while his counterpart in California can access Medicaid.

Instead, we should build off of the momentum in states and localities that are alleviating poverty and investing in families, which, not coincidentally, can also significantly reduce the chronic stress associated with a wide variety of illness affecting life expectancy. As noted by the Washington Post in its coverage of the Chetty study, “Among the 100 largest commuting zones ranked by the researchers, six of the top eight for low-income life expectancies are in California” — a state that has pursued many policies that mitigate the stresses associated with poverty, such as paid parental leave, a higher minimum wage, and investments in early care and education.

A serious agenda to cut poverty and promote economic opportunity would include these policies and more, investing in job creation, expanding access to high-quality childcare, and increasing opportunities for post-secondary education and training. It would help families manage work and caregiving through paid family leave and fair, flexible, and predictable work schedules; it would protect and strengthen the safety net, which is currently reducing poverty by nearly half. Finally, it would invest in high-poverty neighborhoods, as well as remove barriers to opportunity for Americans with criminal records.

There are many reasons for lawmakers and candidates to embrace these policies, not least of which is that they are very popular with Americans across the political spectrum. But Chetty and his colleagues have now given us one more important reason to reject the failed conservative proposals and instead make needed investments to cut poverty and boost opportunity.



What Happens When Asylum Seekers Are Too Poor to Make Bail

On April 6, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class action lawsuit against the federal government for detaining immigrants who remain in jail simply because they are too poor to pay their bond.

One of the plaintiffs in the case, Cesar Matias, is a gay Honduran seeking protection in the United States. Since 2012, he’s been detained at the Santa Ana City Jail because he is unable to afford the $3,000 bond a judge set for his release. Xochitl Hernandez, the other plaintiff, is being held at a for-profit detention facility so notoriously dangerous that 29 members of Congress submitted a letter to the Department of Homeland Security requesting that women not be detained there. Hernandez, a mother of five U.S. citizen children (and grandmother of another four citizens), faces the prospect of remaining in detention for years until her case is resolved because her bond was set at $60,000.

Both plaintiffs were found eligible for release, which means that they pose no danger to their communities. Any chance of flight risk would be mitigated by conditions placed on their release. Yet they remain in immigration detention facilities that have dismal human rights records simply because they can’t afford to pay up.

They remain in immigration detention facilities that have dismal human rights records simply because they can’t afford to pay up.

Unfortunately, the cases of Matias and Hernandez aren’t isolated incidents. The U.S. immigration detention system holds some 34,000 people daily who are awaiting decisions in their immigration cases. Many of them are detained because they are unable to make bond. The ACLU estimates that there are at least 100 immigrants detained in Los Angeles alone just because they cannot afford to pay bond. At the Santa Ana City Jail, where Matias is being held, only three of 651 detained immigrants were bonded out in 2015. I’ve received reports from attorneys working across the country—including in New Jersey, Texas, and Arizona—about LGBT people detained due to bonds as high as $100,000.

Detention not only subjects immigrants to terrible conditions—conditions that are particularly dangerous for LGBT individuals—it can also carry devastating long-term consequences. The New York Immigrant Representation study found that detained immigrants who are represented by counsel have only an 18 percent chance of a successful case outcome, compared to a 74 percent success rate for immigrants who are represented but have not been detained.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has criticized cash bonds in the criminal justice system that result in the incarceration of people solely because they can’t pay.  Congressman Ted Lieu also introduced legislation to end money bail. Yet immigration officials do not consider an immigrant’s ability to pay when setting a cash bond either, and in contrast to the criminal justice system in which an individual typically must post 10 percent of the bond in order to be released, immigration detainees must pay the entire bond.

As attorney Michael Tan of the ACLU told me, “Ironically, at a time when the Department of Justice has argued that it’s unconstitutional to lock up criminal defendants simply because they’re poor, its officials are engaged in the same practice in the immigration system. But it’s just as irrational—and unlawful—to lock up immigrants solely because they can’t afford to make bail.”

According to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson, bond amounts are determined by an individual’s flight risk. ICE reviews each case and takes a variety of factors into account to determine the level of flight risk—including immigration history, criminal history, and community ties.

Hernandez was considered enough of a risk to warrant a $60,000 bond determination, despite living in the U.S. for the past 25 years and having children and grandchildren who are citizens. According to the ACLU’s complaint, the additional factor taken into account appears to be her criminal history, which consists of a decade-old shoplifting conviction for which she was sentenced to one day in jail. As for Matias, the complaint doesn’t specify a determination of his flight risk; it simply states that the judge believed the $3,000 bond set was “pretty generous.”  The judge who reviewed that determination two years later agreed the amount was “reasonable,” despite Matias’ continued inability to afford it.

While ICE has broad discretion in determining which factors to weigh in setting conditions for release, there is a statutory bond minimum of $1,500. Moreover, officials are not required to consider whether alternative conditions of supervised release—such as periodic reporting requirements or ankle bracelets—can be utilized alone or in combination with lower bond amounts to ensure that individuals appear in court. These alternatives to detention cost an average of $10.55 per day, compared to an average daily cost of $158 to detain a person. In cases where bond is used, the very least ICE and DOJ should do is consider the ability of an individual to pay it.

The government has now spent $153,300 to keep Matias in detention.  Until the DOJ and ICE make smart and humane reforms, these costs will continue to mount, and people like Cesar Matias and Xochitl Hernandez will languish in cells, solely because they are too poor to make bail.



Why Conservatives’ Plans for Pregnancy 401(k)s Fall Short

Eighty-seven percent of workers lack paid family leave, including the vast majority of low-income workers. Fortunately, some conservatives have offered a bold new solution: pregnancy IRAs.

That’s right. In an apparent attempt to cement the United States’ status as the last industrialized nation on Earth without paid family leave, the Independent Women’s Forum proposed a system of Personal Care Accounts (PCAs) in which workers would save for their own paid leave based on the same 401(k) model that has left millions at risk of an insecure retirement.

The proposal would, of course, place the burden on individuals to save for their time off during the lowest-earning years of their lives. As Jeffrey Hayes from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research explains, the fact that women have kids early in their life means that there is very little time for parents’ savings to compound—limiting the main benefit of tax-free savings accounts as well as the savings of most people who aren’t already in the privileged position of being able to take time off.

And, there are other reasons why this proposal pales in comparison to existing plans to guarantee paid family leave.

“Personal Care Accounts” would leave out many young parents

The PCA is modeled after tax-exempt savings accounts such as Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and 401(k)s. These savings vehicles are supposed to make it easier to accumulate wealth by allowing workers to defer paying taxes on contributions from themselves and their employer. Unfortunately, over two-thirds of 401(k) tax benefits go to the top 20 percent of households and most low-income households—the ones most unlikely to have paid leave—do not have access to a retirement account at work.  Notably, the IWF is also opposed to requiring employers to provide retirement benefits, indicating that their commitment to access is about as robust as our current paid leave laws.

The PCA would actually help even fewer people than does the 401(k) since younger workers have less money to save and are in a lower tax bracket, which means they benefit less from deferring taxes than older households. Indeed, the median income of a household headed by individuals between the ages of 25-34 is just $53,000 compared to $84,000 for 45-54 year olds. Given their lower incomes, it is no surprise that young adults have not been able to build very much wealth: the median young household actually has saved $0 for retirement. And so, at a time when half of all households say they could not come up with $400 for a financial emergency without selling assets or borrowing money, it is not credible to claim that young people should save for their paid leave—which they may similarly need unexpectedly—in yet another account.

Further limiting access, in order to use the PCA, a worker would have to have access to unpaid time off at work. However, the Family and Medical Leave Act—the current law that guarantees job-protected, unpaid time off—fails to cover about 40 percent of workers.

The likely use of PCAs? Increasing the limit on tax-free savings for the rich.

Low- and moderate-income households already pay little in federal taxes because of their low incomes: the bottom three quintiles of families with children pay an average of just $3,700 per year in individual and payroll taxes combined. So they don’t have much to gain from tax-free savings.

But, there is one group that does indeed stand to benefit from the use of PCAs: the rich. A saver in the top tax bracket would avoid paying about 40 cents in federal income taxes for every dollar they contribute—a huge subsidy from the government. PCAs would simply increase the number of accounts that well-off Americans can use to reduce their tax burden—after maxing out their 401(k), IRA, and health savings account, they would be able to stow away another $5,000 tax-free per year. The IWF did cap PCAs at $30,000—roughly two years of working full-time at the federal minimum wage—to limit the amount of sheltered income. But that means the plan will allow wealthy individuals to accumulate an additional $30,000 in tax-sheltered savings—or $60,000 per couple—resulting in less revenue for government services that would benefit the very low-income people left out in the cold under this policy proposal.

IWF itself doesn’t think PCAs will do the job

Strikingly, IWF itself implicitly admits that its proposal of tax-deferred saving would not be enough for working women by saying that wealthy individuals and corporations could fund PCAs out of charity. The report says:

“Additionally, non-profits could be established by generous individuals as well as larger corporations as part of their social corporate responsibility efforts to help set up and fund PCAs for lower income workers, in order to help provide leave benefits for those facing the biggest financial challenges. Many generous individuals and foundations are interested in helping people during times of childbirth or illness and would support such a cause.”

In other words, IWF is counting on a magical change in corporate and philanthropic behavior to pay for parental leave. Take retirement as an example. Although middle-class workers are facing a retirement crisis, there is no sign that corporations have decided to fill empty 401(k)s with their social responsibility funds. Surely, nothing will stop these same generous individuals and larger corporations from stepping up to fund paid leave for lower-income workers today.

To be sure, making it easier for Americans to save for the future is very important.  But when it comes to providing paid leave, there are much better solutions than hoping that individuals save enough during the lowest-earning years of their lives to cover their time off. Policies put forward by progressive members of Congress would substantially increase access to paid family and medical leave, instead of just giving yet another tax break to those who can already afford to save. It’s well past time to ensure that all Americans, no matter where they live—or how much they’re able to save—are able to take time off to care for their families.



When Bad Financial Advice Pushes Seniors into Poverty

When you meet with a financial adviser, the advice you get may not be what’s best for you—it may be what’s best for them and their bottom line.

Fortunately, earlier this month at the Center for American Progress, the U.S. Department of Labor announced its final fiduciary rule that would require financial professionals who advise on how to invest retirement savings to act in their clients’ best interest. The fiduciary rule is much more than an obscure legal concept—it’s a commonsense action that closes 40-year-old loopholes in retirement security laws that were left open by Congress. It also returns at least $17 billion a year to American families.

Granted, struggling families are not likely to have access to retirement funds and financial advisers, so some may wonder how this helps low-income Americans. The fact is that faulty advice can leave individuals in poverty when they retire, even if they were able to save for retirement during their working years.

For example, Ruby H. of Philadelphia scrimped for 17 years to put aside $5,000 for retirement, and an adviser helped her grow that amount to $17,000. But when her adviser switched firms, he changed her investments into the ones most advantageous to him, and she lost everything. And Phil Ashburn lost the bulk of his savings after he spent 30 years working for utility companies: first Western Electric in 1972, and finally Pacific Bell. Offered a buyout in 2002, he was recommended to a financial adviser who put the value of his savings—about $355,000—in an expensive variable annuity. However, he ended up with only about 20 percent of those savings following the Great Recession. Meanwhile, the adviser received a commission of roughly 7 percent and ended up making $900,000 that year.

More than half of all working-age households are considered inadequately prepared for retirement.

These stories are a painful reminder of why workers face such bleak prospects for retirement. Forty years ago, when the rules on retirement advice were first written, most workers didn’t have to worry about whether they were getting good advice because they weren’t expected to plan for their own retirement. The vast majority of workers with a retirement plan had traditional pensions, which rewarded a lifetime of work with monthly payments for life. There was no need to wade through different investment options and savings strategies. But today, with the erosion of pensions and advent of options that are far less secure, more than half of all working-age households are considered inadequately prepared for retirement, up from 31 percent in 1983.

The rule also reminds us why Social Security is so crucial, particularly in this era of financial uncertainty. Social Security brings the incomes of more than nearly 15 million elderly above the poverty line, cutting senior poverty by three-quarters. And for roughly two-thirds of the elderly, Social Security provides the majority of their retirement income. Future retirees need the assurance that Social Security will be there even if their savings, or their financial adviser, aren’t up to par. Thankfully, as Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) noted during the Department of Labor’s announcement, cutting Social Security is no longer mainstream: “How much should we cut Social Security is such a preposterous proposition except on K Street, except among pundits.”

But while Social Security is safe for now, this fiduciary rule is under attack by some financial firms and their conservative allies. This disagreement isn’t unexpected. As Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has pointed out, there are “17 billion reasons” why special interests oppose the rule—that is, the $17 billion returned to the American people. In fact, from the beginning of discussions around the rule, some industry players have called it unworkable, argued that their voices were not heard, or threatened to sue. House Speaker Paul Ryan has also derided the rule, calling it “Obamacare for financial planning” and seeking to undo it. Given that his stated concern for the poor has often been accompanied by policy proposals to make drastic cuts to the safety net, perhaps this is not surprising. But, as the Department of Labor has stepped in to close loopholes of Congress’ own making after decades of improper financial advice, rolling back the fiduciary rule now will only increase retirees’ vulnerability in the coming years.

Some opponents have even gone so far as to claim that the reform will diminish working families’ access to financial advice because some advisers may stop working with less profitable savers if they cannot charge as much. But the fact is that most working families with small amounts of savings are not served by advisers today to begin with, and may have less trust in the advice that’s given in the first place. This same argument about access is a common defense for other predatory products—whether payday loans or for-profit colleges—in which the real question about access is whether companies can keep their access to the vulnerable consumers whom they grift. Meanwhile, new firms are offering independent, nonconflicted advice at a fraction of the cost, proving that it can indeed be done without ripping off current or future retirees.

This rule is a stark reminder for members of Congress to decide which side they are on: that of savers or of special interests. If they stand with Secretary Tom Perez and those who came out in favor of the rule, they have the opportunity to prevent bad financial advice from cheating more families out of their retirement dollars.