What Returning Citizens Need to Make Successful Transitions
The fundamental building blocks for returning citizens’ successful transition back into society are, ironically, the most challenging for them to secure: steady employment, safe and affordable housing, and reliable transportation. If these three major needs are met, their chance of ending back behind bars is greatly reduced.
Employment, housing, and transportation are largely interrelated, as it is hard to have one without the other. For instance, it is difficult for a person to keep a job without having a place to live relatively nearby; it is doubtful a person can continue to pay rent without having a regular source of income; and it is challenging to find housing or commute to work without a reliable means of transportation. This catch-22 is what makes reentry so intimidating for those getting out of prison.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Finding safe and affordable housing is a particularly perplexing issue for returning citizens. After leaving prison through parole, probation, or by maxing-out, their housing options are generally limited to living with family or friends, living at a transitional house, securing public housing, or renting. Each person’s circumstances determine their living situation.
For some, going to live with a family member is the best option, as it enables them to have a free place to live while trying to get back on their feet (that is, if there is another provider supporting them). For others, this is the worst place for them to go, as family members have been a poor influence on their lives and would further entrap them in a lifestyle of crime. Still, others may be in desperate circumstances and in need of public housing, while a few have the necessary means to rent an apartment or a house.
Potential Roadblocks: Affordability and Criminal Records
By far the biggest obstacle to obtaining housing is affordability. Many people leave prison owing various debts including child support arrearages, court fees, damages, restitution, etc. Faced with financial stress from multiple directions, many find it difficult to balance paying rent with any number of fees while trying to secure a job that pays a reasonable salary.
The other major hindrance that returning citizens face in obtaining housing is the impact of their criminal record. Many private leasing offices run background checks on prospective tenants, prohibiting those with a felony conviction from occupancy. Further, those who seek public housing run into the problem of Public Housing Authority’s limited capacity and multiple restrictions. Those who were evicted for drug-related criminal activity are banned from public housing for three years (unless they complete an approved rehabilitation program), while lifetime registered sex offenders and anyone convicted of manufacturing methamphetamines on public housing property are banned for life.
Housing Partnership Shows Some Success
As a means of overcoming some of these barriers, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Department of Corrections, and the Department of Community of Affairs teamed up to form Reentry Partnership Housing (RPH). This program provides housing for people who have been authorized to parole but remain in prison due solely to having no residential options. For this group, the government pays approved housing providers $600 per month for three months which includes housing and food. Those who demonstrate the best outcomes receive the most parolees from the state.
The program has shown some success in alleviating the burden for hard-to-place parolees. “From 2002 to 2008, RPH placed 516 parolees, including 30% classified as special needs.” In addition, “Over 58% of participants secured employment…only 5% had their parole revoked and less than 3% absconded” (see Award-Winning Georgia Reentry Program).
While the program has had some success, one notable shortcoming is housing providers are often not located in the best cities for parolees to find jobs and establish roots. It is essential that returning citizens are placed in sufficiently resourced areas to aid in their successful transition; otherwise, the program becomes merely a short-term solution that leaves the person jobless and homeless after three months.
Identifying Housing Solutions
A potential remedy to this problem is to identify, facilitate, and fund housing providers in the cities where returning citizens are most likely to return. If people are placed in areas where they can find a job and have access to transportation, their chances of successfully transitioning into society are much higher.
The Governor’s Office of Transition, Support & Reentry (GOTSR) is making a considerate effort to identify and coordinate housing providers in the six reentry pilot sites that have been established across the state* (Albany, Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Macon, and Savannah).
GOTSR is in the process of implementing the new Georgia Prisoner Reentry Initiative (GA-PRI) Framework at these sites as a means of creating a seamless transition from prison to the community for those who will be released in these cities. The office is in the midst of hiring community coordinators, housing coordinators, employment coordinators, and prison in-reach specialists to aid in making this transition successful for returning citizens.
A big part of the work taking place at these sites involves identifying all of the resources in the local community that are available, assessing what resources are missing, encouraging service providers to work together and avoid duplicating efforts, and creating a database where returning citizens can easily access these resources. GOTSR launched a website earlier this year that contains the database where service providers can be found.
Undoubtedly, it will take the effort of local communities committed to meeting the needs of these men and women in order to see a tangible difference being made. However, if this sort of local involvement takes place throughout the state in conjunction with the efforts being made at the state level, who knows what sort of impact we will see in the lives of returning citizens over the next decade?
*Note: GOTSR does not provide funding for service providers in these communities but rather works to identify, coordinate, and galvanize these providers to effectively serve those returning to their communities from prison.
This is the final entry in a series of posts highlighting GCO’s report, A High Price to Pay: Recommendations for Minimizing Debt’s Role in Driving Recidivism Rates. The first entry provided an overview of the report, the second entry laid out causes of debt for people reentering society from prison, and the third entry details the consequences of debt for returning citizens .This final post summarizes what has been said so far and outlines recommendations for the state to implement.
It is in the state’s interest and in the interest of justice for returning citizens to pay debts and obligations owed to family members, victims, courts, and criminal justice agencies. Children need financial support from parents who have been incarcerated, victims ought to receive just compensation for losses and damages they have suffered, and courts and criminal justice agencies should be reimbursed for services that they provide. Nonetheless, for many people reentering society after a period of incarceration, debts and the inability to earn money while in prison create serious obstacles to a successful transition.
It is not uncommon for returning citizens to leave prison owing tens of thousands of dollars in child support arrears, restitution, court fines, fees, and surcharges to criminal justice agencies. Unrealistic terms for repaying these debts can discourage them from paying anything at all and encourages returning citizens to engage in the illegal, underground economy as a means of earning an income. Such actions result in probation or parole violations and may result in re-incarceration, the ultimate measure of recidivism.
Enforcing the repayment of debts and obligations without considering the needs and financial circumstances of returning citizens works contrary to the interests of all stakeholders involved. At least 95 percent of those who enter state prisons will return to society at some point, and these citizens often struggle to provide for their own basic needs upon release, much less service the debt they have incurred as a result of their conviction. Simply affording rent payments, buying food and clothing, and covering transportation expenses can be remarkably difficult for a person with a criminal record. The state needs to take this into consideration and set realistic terms for returning citizens to pay current obligations and repay debts, while at the same time establishing a reliable, coordinated, and systematic approach for the collection of money that is due. Such reform would increase the amount of money received by families, victims, courts, and criminal justice agencies, while decreasing the costs associated with recidivism.
The state of Georgia should consider implementing the following recommendations as a means of encouraging returning citizens to repay their debts and obligations while taking into consideration their need to be successfully reintegrated and reestablished within the community:
Identify offenders with child support involvement upon entry to prison
The state should identify offenders with child support responsibilities upon entry to prison by electronically matching the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) and Division of Child Support Services (DCSS) agency caseloads using common identifiers such as social security numbers and birth dates. This data match will allow the DCSS to provide pertinent information to incarcerated non-custodial parents concerning their child support obligation(s), as well as identify those who need to establish paternity and/or child support orders but have not already done so.
Provide child support information and services to parents during their incarceration
Once identified, the DCSS should inform incarcerated non-custodial parents of the amount of their child support obligation(s), notify them periodically of the amount their arrears have accrued, work with them to develop a plan for meeting these obligations upon release, and inform them of the incentives available to them through the state for consistent payment of support.
Provide a 90-day grace period to ease the transition phase
Upon release, the court and DCSS should automatically review the amount of child support returning citizens can pay on a case-by-case basis. Those who have no means of paying anything at that time should be given a grace period of 90 days before having to pay their obligations and repay debt. This grace period will provide them time to find a job, housing, transportation, and other essential needs that can enable them to meet their obligation. After the 90 days, those who still cannot pay their child support orders should be referred to the Georgia Fatherhood Program (GFP) or a Child Support Problem Solving Court (PSC) to receive additional help in finding a job and meeting their obligations.
Limit amount of wages to be garnished by the state
For returning citizens who have a job and are able to pay some amount of child support, the court should determine on a case-by-case basis the amount of wages to be garnished from their paycheck. The court should take into consideration such factors as the returning citizen’s income, cost of living, and other dependents that he or she is taking care of. The state should set a ceiling of 50 percent as the maximum percentage of wages to be withheld from a returning citizen – something which a third of the states have already done.
Forgive fines, fees, and surcharges owed to the state
The state should consider incentivizing returning citizens to pay child support and restitution by forgiving (or waiving) all or some of the fines, fees, and surcharges owed to the state for those who meet their monthly obligations. Forgiving these expenses in exchange for consistent payments would encourage greater compliance among returning citizens, which means that families and victims would receive more money in the long run. The state should tie participation in reparative activities as a condition for receiving these benefits, including drug treatment services, GFP, a PSC, or community service projects.
Reinstate driver’s licenses that were suspended for non-payment of child support
The state should lift driver’s license suspensions for returning citizens’ whose licenses were suspended because they were more than 60 days in arrears in making payments in full for current support, periodic payments on a support arrearage, or periodic payments on a reimbursement for public assistance. To maintain driving privileges, the state should require that returning citizens be actively seeking a job or actively working, and that they consistently pay child support according to their means.
Forgive arrears and interest owed to the state
The state should forgive arrears and interest owed to the state in order to motivate obligors to comply with long-term payment plans, to eliminate uncollectible debt, to facilitate case closure where appropriate, and to help families become more self-sufficient. To receive this benefit, the state should require that returning citizens make a set number of consecutive payments in exchange for a set percentage of arrears and interest owed to the state to be forgiven. Returning citizens should also have a determined minimum amount of arrears to participate in the debt compromise program.
Designate a single agency to track and consolidate returning citizens’ debts
One agency should be designated to track and consolidate individual returning citizens’ debts in a centralized tracking system and ensure that it remains updated as the person travels through the criminal justice system and is released into the community. This agency should be responsible for collecting all offense-related debt and disbursing funds according to the priority set by the federal and state government. Regular updates concerning the total amount of debt owed and expected dates and amounts of repayment should be sent to returning citizens, victims, courts, and criminal justice agencies. Courts and criminal justice agencies should use this information to establish realistic repayment plans for returning citizens based on their financial situation.
 We realize that some will be frustrated by our use of the term “returning citizen” in this report and would prefer to see us use a more familiar term such as “ex-offender.” Our use of the term “returning citizen” is intended not as a political statement but as an acknowledgement that almost all offenders will return to our community at some point in the future and that it is in our best interest to think of offenders in that light, as our thinking will shape how we treat them during incarceration and what we expect of them upon release.
 Offense-related debt does not include child support, which is collected and tracked by DCSS and cannot be consolidated with restitution, fines, fees, and surcharges. Nonetheless, the amount of child support that has been collected should also be tracked by the agency that is consolidating offense-related debts, because the amount that goes toward child support (which must be paid first in priority according to federal law) impacts the amount that can be paid toward these other debts.
To view the endnotes included within the recommendations section of the report, please click here.
***Edit to the report: May 6, 2015
At the time of writing the report, the author was unaware that Georgia already has a detailed debt reduction program in place to assist indigent non-custodial parents who owe arrears to the state. The Division of Child Support Services’ (DCSS) State Debt Reduction Program (SDRP) provides non-custodial parents the ability to have a significant percentage of their state-owed arrears reduced if an agent determines that:
(1) “Good cause” existed for the nonpayment of the public assistance debt;
(2) Repayment or enforcement of the debt would result in substantial and unreasonable hardship for the parent owing the debt;
(3) The non-custodial parent is currently unable to pay the debt;
(4) The non-custodial parent is making regular payments of current child support, regardless of the amount.
The amount that eligible non-custodial parents can have their arrears reduced depends upon the amount they owe. Those with a greater amount of arrears owed to the state are eligible to have a greater percentage reduced (with the exception of those who owe less than $100, who can have their entire state-owed arrears balance waived). For example, non-custodial parents with state-owed arrears balances of $9,000 or greater can have their arrears waved or reduced by 75 percent, so long as they pay the remaining 25 percent owed in a lump sum payment or in 24 monthly installments.[i]
While Georgia has a detailed debt reduction program in place, it appears that the participation in the program is limited. In 2014, only 349 out of the 354,427 total non-custodial parents ordered to pay child support in Georgia entered into the plan, based on the 30 DCSS offices that reported.[ii]* More should be done to enroll struggling returning citizens with child support arrears owed to the state into the program. One way the state can do this is by promoting it within the Fatherhood Program and Child Support Problem Solving Courts (PSCs), which returning citizens will be likely to participate in.
[i] Division of Child Support Services, “State Debt Reduction Guidelines,” Employee Reference Guide – Standard Operating Procedure 251, Email Release May 24, 2013.
[ii] Erica Thornton, Manager of the Policy and Paternity Unit, Division of Child Support Services, Georgia Department of Human Services, email message to author, February 3, 2015; Georgia Department of Human Services, “Division of Child Support Services: Fact Sheet,” Revised November 2014.
*While not all 354,427 non-custodial parents ordered to pay child support in Georgia owe arrears to the state, the large figure suggests that there may be numerous non-custodial parents (particularly those reentering society from prison) who do (or should) qualify for the program, but are currently being overlooked.
Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) is pleased to see Governor Nathan Deal and U.S. Attorney Sally Yates (Northern District of Georgia) exercise their influence to encourage business leaders across the state to hire ex-offenders. They are urging employers to give ex-offenders a fair shot in the hiring process and outlining the benefits available to those who choose to hire them.
Governor Deal speaking at a Reentry Summit with U.S. Attorney Sally Yates on Feb. 5, 2014.
Image credit: Georgia.Gov, Office of the Governor.
These actions are consonant with recommendations made by GCO’s Prisoner Reentry Working Group this past December based on input from criminal justice practitioners in Georgia and a review of best practices across the country (See Increasing Employment Opportunities for Ex-Offenders).
One important recommendation made by the working group included increasing the chance that a person with a criminal record will get hired by postponing the question about an applicant’s criminal history to a point after the interview stage of the hiring process. Such an action would give the applicant an opportunity to demonstrate his or her qualifications for a job and provide an explanation for any criminal history to the employer during the interview. It also prevents an employer from automatically screening a candidate who may be the best fit for the position.
Another key recommendation made by the working group is that the state should set the example for other employers by hiring ex-offenders. This action would demonstrate that the state is serious about helping ex-offenders become employed and successfully transition back into society. We believe that the degree of success the state has in finding and maintaining qualified ex-offenders as employees will directly impact the willingness of private employers to adopt similar policies.
Read the following articles posted on February 6, 2014 in the Savannah Morning News to learn more about steps that the key state leaders are making to encourage businesses to hire ex-offenders: http://savannahnow.com/news/2014-02-06/ga-officials-urge-businesses-hire-ex-prisoners#.UvTmvLT-L1V.
Recently, the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) conducted its second working group meeting on the issue of prisoner reentry. Working group members traveled from across the metro-Atlanta area to convene with like-minded professionals who desire to see prisoners succeed in reentering society. The members come from a variety of professional backgrounds, including criminal justice agencies, various non-profits, addiction recovery, research, and reentry consulting (not to mention one member is a former prisoner himself).
Employment is the first area of focus that we chose to address as a working group. This was a logical place to start because of the critical role employment plays in the successful reintegration of offenders. For starters, having a job enables ex-offenders to meet their basic needs for food, housing, clothing, and transportation. Secondly, it affords them the means to meet various obligations that they may have, including paying child support, court fees, damages, and restitution. Last but not least, work provides offenders with an important sense of purpose, accomplishment, and worth which are essential for human thriving. For all of these reasons, having a job and maintaining it is one of the strongest antidotes for recidivism.
However, getting a job is not that easy for a person coming out of a prison. One of the main reasons for this is due to the fact that he carries an unattractive criminal record.
Each time an ex-offender seeks a job, he must face the dreaded question “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
It is precisely his response to this question that will most likely disqualify him from the job that he seeks. It is not likely that he will get a chance to explain his arrest or conviction to the employer before he is screened from the pool of applicants. All the ex-offender wants is the opportunity to demonstrate that he is the right man for the job, but the box on the application keeps him from showing the employer the extent to which he is qualified.
It would be easy to condemn employers for not hiring more ex-offenders, but we also must consider their point of view. Employers desire to hire the best possible candidates for positions that they are trying to fill, and they may reasonably feel that a college graduate better suits a given position than a 30-year-old ex-offender with no prior work experience. Employers want workers who have demonstrated success, who have proven their reliability, who will represent their company well, who are effective at managing their time, and who can appropriately handle stressful situations. They want problem-solvers, and they have little patience for problem-creators. If they have reason to believe that an ex-offender may create issues in the workplace because of her history, it is understandable why they would show reserve in hiring her.
However, without considering an ex-offender’s qualifications, the obstacles she has overcome, and the potential that she offers, an employer is cutting both himself and the ex-offender short.
In automatically screening those with a criminal history from the pool of applicants and labeling them as a liability to the company, an employer could be passing up his best employee. Many offenders are itching to prove themselves to employers, to their families, and to the community, and they will go to great lengths to do just that. They want to demonstrate that their lives have been turned around; they want to show that they can provide for the needs of their families; they want a shot at redemption.
In discussing this reality, the working group agreed that employers should take three things into consideration in order to ensure a fair hiring process. These include the nature of the crime committed and its relation to the position sought, the amount of time that has elapsed since the crime, and the qualifications of the ex-offender in reference to the job. By taking these criteria into account, the employer can assess the risk that the ex-offender may pose to her company, while also evaluating the value that he would bring.
Finally, the group discussed the benefits that could occur by an employer postponing the question about criminal history until after the interview is conducted. This policy would be good for several reasons: It would allow the ex-offender to put his best foot forward during the job interview; it would enable the employer to critically evaluate the applicant’s qualifications independent of his record; and finally, it would give the ex-offender a chance to explain his felony conviction in person. This process would promote fairer hiring practices and would greatly enhance an ex-offender’s opportunity of getting a job.
And in a world of seemingly insurmountable odds, ex-offenders need all the opportunity that they can get.
• Roberta Meyers, Ray P. McClain, and Lewis Maltby, “Best Practice Standards: The Proper Use of Criminal Records in Hiring,” The Legal Action Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and National Workrights Institute, 2013, http://www.lac.org/doc_library/lac/publications/Best_Practices_Standards_-_The_Proper_Use_of_Criminal_Records_in_Hiring.pdf.
• Paul Samuels and Debbie Mukamal, “After Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry. A Report on State Legal Barriers Facing People with Criminal Records,” A Report by the Legal Action Center, 2004, http://www.lac.org/roadblocks-to-reentry/upload/lacreport/LAC_PrintReport.pdf.
• Margaret Colgate Love, “Relief from the Collateral Consequences of a Criminal Conviction: A State-by-State Resource Guide,” Prepared with support from an Open Society Institute fellowship, October 2005, http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/4cs/files/2008/11/statebystaterelieffromcccc.pdf.
• “How to Cut Prison Costs” New York Times, November 10, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/opinion/sunday/how-to-cut-prison-costs.html.