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Vera Institute Announces Increase in Federal 
Funding to House Former Prisoners

by Derek Gilna

On August 30, 2018, the Vera Institute of Justice announced an expansion of federal assistance to provide housing for prisoners who are reentering society. The “Opening Doors to Public Housing Initiative,” a program funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), seeks to substantially increase the availability of post-release housing.

As noted by Margaret diZerega, project director at the Vera Institute of Justice, “All of society benefits when formerly incarcerated people are able to reintegrate safely and successfully back into the community.”

“By partnering with housing authorities, residents, law enforcement, and community partners, we can assess admissions policies for people with conviction histories and facilitate safe reentry,” she added.

Of the more than 600,000 people released from prison each year, and the 10 million who cycle in and out of local jails annually, a large number are freed with limited financial resources. If they lack family or friends to move in with after release, they require some form of housing in order to avoid homelessness. But in many places, the public housing authority (PHA) has restrictive policies that exclude people with criminal records.

The BJA’s new program is led by eight PHAs that have instituted reentry programs to provide prisoners with safe post-release housing; they include PHAs in Lafayette, LA; Oklahoma City, OK; San Diego County, CA; and Delaware.

A similar housing program for released offenders in Burlington, VT is fairly typical of those participating in the BJA program, as it “does not exclude prospective applicants based on criminal histories,” Vera said.

“The program begins its screening process by holding an initial ‘intake interview’ with the applicant, during which he or she is asked about substance use and criminal history, as well as any changes in the applicant’s life since his or her conviction,” the organization added. “Program staff also ask for additional information from the applicant in order to assess barriers to housing.”

Federal law excludes people from federally-funded housing if they are subject to lifetime sex offender registration or have been convicted of producing methamphetamine. But the BJA’s new initiative includes additional federal resources for housing assistance for other newly-released offenders. Those resources are intended to 1) improve reentry outcomes and reduce recidivism rates; 2) ensure reentry housing does not compromise the safety of public housing and surrounding communities; and 3) reduce recidivism by promoting collaboration between PHAs and law enforcement agencies.

The BJA program follows a February 2018 announcement by the Trump administration that the Department of Justice’s Federal Interagency Reentry Council, created by former Attorney General Eric Holder in 2011, would be re-elevated to the President’s Cabinet. That announcement followed a summit held in January 2018 which registered bi-partisan support for reentry programs to assist former prisoners, with the goal of reducing recidivism.

Although 95 percent of federal and state prisoners are eventually released, about two-thirds are rearrested within three years – indicating a need for effective reentry programs.

The White House has announced that its proposed 2019 budget includes $739 million for prisoner reentry services, plus another $48 million to support state and local reentry programs. The administration would like to add another $100 million annually towards those efforts over the next five years, funded in part by savings from reducing the BOP’s population. 

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Sources: “Opening Doors: How to develop reentry programs using examples from public housing authorities,” Vera Institute of Justice (Sept. 2017); www.vera.org; www.usatoday.com