It's National Reentry Week. Here are 4 policy solutions to help youth with criminal records - Generocity Philly

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Apr. 27, 2017 11:08 am

It’s National Reentry Week. Here are 4 policy solutions to help youth with criminal records

Why two Philly lawyers are calling for "bold policy reform."

Youth with records often struggle to find employment and housing.

(Photo by Flickr user Bread for the World, used under a Creative Commons license)

This is a guest post by lawyers Jamie Gullen and Joanna Visser Adjoian.
When young people are arrested and charged in the adult criminal system, the impact can be lifelong and the barriers to moving forward can seem insurmountable.

Many of those barriers are imposed by the government itself, and can keep necessities like housing and employment out of reach.

Consider the recent experience of one of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP)’s client partners, Ronald.* At the age of 17, Ronald was charged and prosecuted in the adult criminal legal system for his alleged participation in an armed robbery, after efforts to be tried as a youth were unsuccessful.

To avoid potentially facing time in state prison for his felony conviction, Ronald chose to accept a plea, which would allow him to remain incarcerated in the county jail and remain closer to his family in Philadelphia.

The need to make choices related to his future incarceration did not end there: Ronald had to further choose between two sentencing options in the county jail, one that provided for nearly 2 years in adult jail followed by a lengthy term of adult probation, and another which involved a shorter jail sentence, followed by house arrest and probation.

Ronald desperately wanted to return home and strongly preferred the second option, but was unable to accept it because his entire family lives in public housing, and he had nowhere to live that would accommodate the restrictions imposed by his felony conviction, and the requirements of house arrest. Put simply, this teenager has spent two years in an adult jail cell because of the government-imposed restrictions to his family’s public housing.

To make matters worse, Ronald’s mother, who struggles with limited literacy and works a minimum wage job, has been provided with no information or support regarding her only son’s ability to return to her home once he is released from jail. Instead, she has been forced to navigate complex bureaucratic processes regarding his removal from her public housing lease, and his lack of housing options.

Ronald’s mother’s top priority is to provide shelter and support to her teenage son when he returns home from years in adult jail. But because of government barriers imposed on people living in poverty, she will face a multitude of hurdles in accomplishing this seemingly simple goal. Her inability to surmount these obstacles may result in Ronald slipping into homelessness when he returns to the community, like so many of his peers.

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Ronald’s story illustrates why knocking down barriers facing families living in public housing is so important. The federal government has taken an important step to acknowledge this by launching the Juvenile Reentry Assistance Program (JRAP) last year, which has supported Community Legal Services (CLS) in collaboration with the Philadelphia Housing Authority to provide expungement and other civil legal services to young people who have had contact with the juvenile and criminal systems, with the goal of keeping families together and housed.

The program has had initial successes, many with youth who are experiencing homelessness and connected to CLS’s services during legal clinics at Covenant House. However, for young people with more serious convictions on their records, help remains out of reach.

For example, CLS was recently able to connect with Mariah, a 23-year-old mom who has an adult felony conviction she obtained while she was under age 18. CLS was able to help Mariah expunge some of the charges from her record, but because expungement is currently very limited in Pennsylvania, Mariah will not benefit from expungement of her felony conviction. Mariah, like Ronald, will continue to face barriers to launching a career, as well as to re-entering public housing.

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To help young people like Ronald and Mariah have a real chance to put their past interactions with the criminal system behind them, we need bold policy reform. In time for National Reentry Week, here are four policy solutions that would make a big difference:

  1. Allow youth who have a reentry plan or are working with a social services provider to re-enter public housing regardless of the nature of their convictions.
  2. End employment and licensing bans for people with certain convictions, allowing people to show individualized evidence of their capacity to work in their chosen field.
  3. Fund a subsidized jobs program focused on young people with criminal records that builds ladders to future career opportunities.
  4. Expand record clearing in Pennsylvania and around the country to apply to more types of records, including felony convictions, when individuals have shown their capacity for rehabilitation.

As criminal justice reform advocate Bryan Stevenson has said, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.” Especially for young people who we know are still developing, learning, and have tremendous capacity for change, we need to do more to ensure that we are not foreclosing a lifetime of opportunities to them, regardless of the types of offenses they are accused of committing.

*All client names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

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Joanna Visser Adjoian

Joanna Visser Adjoian, Esq. is cofounder and co-director of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), which uses direct service and policy advocacy to transform the experiences of kids prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system. Joanna serves as co-chair of the Legal Rights of Children Committee of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Public Interest Section, and she sits on the Toll Public Interest Center Advisory Board and the steering committee of the Pennsylvania Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

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