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LA must appraise realistically ex-con homelessness

In addressing homelessness of ex-prisoners, now a growing concern with Louisiana’s recent changes in its criminal justice system, solutions that misunderstand the human condition will not alleviate this problem.

A recent report highlighted difficulties ex-convicts face in finding permanent housing. A report by the Prison Policy Initiative determined that about one percent were homeless, and another one percent lived in temporary shelter. The combined proportion doubles for freed multiple offenders. This contrasts with the general public, in which about 0.2 percent lived in one of these conditions.

Granted, two percent represents a very small portion of the overall formerly incarcerated. Still, if that exceeds the general population by 10 times, some factors must work to cause that. The question then becomes what public policy options may ameliorate this.

The group recommends several items in this regard. One makes particular sense, better coordination to help recently-released individuals find homes. Others depend upon increasing funds, such as to provide housing vouchers, to give people often with few resources a chance to achieve stability in residence, which then can lead to procuring jobs with reduced likelihood of acting aberrantly such as through substance abuse.

Supporters of the state’s criminal justice initiative, such as Gov. John Bel Edwards, intend for the state to save money because of these changes and then pump much of that back into efforts to reduce recidivism. That could apply to strengthening housing, but the problem is Edwards did it backwards in starting by releasing or diverting from jail a couple of thousand convicts a year before implementing anti-recidivism programs. Still, with the state apparently ready to fund such measures now, this could translate into providing housing stability.

Unfortunately, other report suggestions build upon mistaken notions of human behavior. The report argues that states should “ban the box,” or remove questions asking housing applicants about previous criminal convictions. Edwards already helped usher in a law that did this for state employment and for attending college. Tangential to that, it asks also to get rid of professional references on the basis that few ex-inmates have recent work histories. It alleges that “A criminal record is not a good proxy for one’s suitability as a tenant.”

Which is entirely false; a record is an excellent proxy to gauge a prospective renter because it taps into the same dynamic that landed almost all offenders in prison in the first place. Like it or not, with very few exceptions, people land in prison because of a singular failing: bad character. They committed what they knew to be a crime, often with malice aforethought. They declared war on society rather than try to work within society – no matter how difficult, strenuous, and marginally rewarding that might be – to live among others.

Renters with bad character cause problems, whether it be the company they keep, the activities that go on in the domicile, or in damaging the property and in not paying rent or on time. Knowing that a prospective tenant comes from a background of bad character enables the potential landlord to probe that condition to determine whether the specific individual has put that trait aside. Even the admission of a record on a form tells the owner that the applicant at least is honest enough to admit a sordid past. References subsequently can allow the owner to ascertain whether the applicant has evolved from that past disreputable state.

Worse, without making this information readily available, owners become more likely to use stereotypical aspects about an applicant that may have nothing to do with that individual’s character. The same goes for landlords using similar proxies, such as higher deposits required from ex-offenders; if they judge risk, if they can’t ask for higher real or potential compensation to adjust for higher risk, they may not want to rent at all to people they stereotype (although perhaps entirely incorrectly) as riskier.

Remember, more difficulty in finding housing by ex-cons isn’t the owner’s fault. It’s the ex-con’s for demonstrating past bad character and shouldering that is part of his debt to society. Don’t commit the crime if you don’t want to suffer reasonable consequences.

The same applies to a final report recommendation, non-aggressive enforcement of quality-of-life issues. Arresting, fining, and jailing the homeless for these violations – which if left lazily enforced can lead to larger issues because lawlessness that disturbs public order mutates into lawlessness in larger ways – it contends creates a cycle of homelessness, if not of imprisonment.

Yet to become lax in such policing removes incentives to escape homelessness. For some, if kept too relaxed about being homeless, they exert insufficient effort to escape it. Taking them into a system as a result of these violations also may aid them in providing a structured track for them to take to break the cycle.

At its basics, we must understand that a good proportion of the homeless choose that condition (either by indulging in substance abuse absent mental illness or simply preferring that lifestyle), out of insufficient motivation and, much likelier in the case of those recently released from jail, character that impedes them from progressing in life. Public policy should not make others unduly bear costs to enable those attributes to continue unbated in a person; rather, policy should seek to avoid rewarding intransigence in personal evolution. These dictates apply without reservation as Louisiana figures out further steps in criminal justice reforms.

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