This past weekend, National Public Radio (NPR) ran a provocative piece on its website about the so-called “collateral consequences” of criminal convictions. The article focused on the challenges that a recent Legal Aid client had in trying to obtain housing.
The term “collateral consequences” refers to the often long-lasting impact of an individual’s criminal conviction. In many instances, the issue arises years later, often long after the sentence is served (or in some cases, suspended and never served) and the debt to society paid. These consequences can be catastrophic for individuals as they try to reintegrate into the community, but instead encounter roadblocks to securing gainful employment, stable housing, and even an education.
The Legal Aid client featured in the NPR story, Maurice Alexander, came to us earlier this year for assistance when he was denied subsidized housing due to a misdemeanor conviction from 2007. Mr. Alexander, an elderly veteran of the civil rights movement, served 10 days in jail for a misdemeanor offense after he was arrested for wagging his finger at a police officer whom he believed to be engaged in racial profiling. Nearly seven years later, multiple housing providers used that conviction as a basis to summarily (and, we believe, improperly) deny his application.
This type of collateral consequence is incredibly difficult for a criminal defendant to foresee; many defendants, and often even their legal advocates, wouldn’t expect the law to impose further punishment upon someone who has already done their time in the eyes of the justice system. The issue of collateral consequences has been the focus of recent reports issued not only by the American Bar Association (referenced in the NPR piece), but also by advocacy groups, both locally and nationally.
Legal Aid has long worked on trying to remove unnecessary barriers to reentry for individuals with criminal convictions. Over the past year, we have worked with a number of other advocates to help push through the D.C. Council a bill that would “ban the box” in the employment context, preventing employers in the District of Columbia from considering a job applicant’s criminal convictions unless it had a direct bearing on the position for which he or she is being considered. (Legal Aid and others also advocated for the proposed legislation to include provisions that would provide protection to individuals in the housing context as well, but the Council ultimately declined to expand it to cover that issue.) The bill, called “the Fair Criminal Record Screening Act of 2014,” went into law in October of this year.