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How the Justice System Reinforces the Homelessness Cycle Through Mass Incarceration



The United States population is approximately 330 million people, representing 5% of the world’s occupants. However, the so-called Land of the Free is also home to 25% of the world’s incarcerated population.

In 1972, the American prison population stood at 300,000 - a drastic difference from the 2.3 million we have today. Despite the significant increase of 500% in the incarcerated population and the 80 Billion dollars annually spent in prisons, the country has not seen a proportional crime rate decrease. Instead, the dramatic increase in prison occupants is directly related to changes in laws and policies that often target BIPOC individuals.

Each year, more than 600,000 individuals are released from state and federal prisons. Another 9 million enter and leave the system through local jails. According to the National Institute of Justice, almost two-thirds of them will return to the system within three years.

Now, you might be wondering how any of that relates to homelessness. Currently, the American justice system puts little to no effort into the expansion and strengthening of transition services. The difficulty faced to find a job - caused by prejudice and systemic barriers - affects one’s ability to obtain income and a good credit score, which decreases the possibility of securing a place to live. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated people had an average of 3.4 jobs throughout the four-year study period, suggesting that they were landing jobs that didn’t offer security or upward mobility. As we know, it is not uncommon for landlords to evaluate your credit score and ask for security deposits and/or two months of rent upfront. With the barriers faced by returning citizens to secure safe jobs, these requirements are often a challenge to meet. The hardships faced in the job market are then translated into housing insecurity.

Unfortunately, housing insecurity is not the only hardship formerly incarcerated people face when reentering society. States often limit access to food programs like SNAP (or food stamps) based on criminal records. This affects not only the returning citizen, but also their family, reinforcing a cycle of generational poverty and vulnerability. Moreover, these are only additions to other challenges that they were likely to be already facing previously to incarceration. There is, for example, a strong correlation between how many years of schooling someone has and job opportunities.

Studies have also shown that approximately 1 in 3 incarcerated adults have less than a high school equivalence, either before or during incarceration, while only 14% of the general public has less than a high school equivalence. Additionally, only 15% of incarcerated adults earn a postsecondary degree or certificate either prior to or during incarceration, while almost half (45%) of the general public have completed some form of postsecondary education. Breaktime has previously published a post expanding the connection between education, employment, and homelessness here. All of these factors contribute to a homelessness-jail cycle in which the barriers imposed by incarceration lead returning citizens to experience housing insecurity, which increases the chances of being incarcerated for low-level offenses such as loitering or sleeping in parks.

Securing housing for everyone, regardless of income and criminal record, is the first step to breaking the cycle. Susan Burton, a businessperson and formerly incarcerated citizen, started A New Way of Life, a reentry program for women in California. In her book, Becoming Ms. Burton, she describes housing as the first challenge returning citizens face, and the biggest threat to their reintegration into society. On the East Coast, recovery homes, and shelters are also common forms of initiatives to support returning citizens. GLAD - or Gay & Lesbians Advocates & Defenders - has put together a document listing resources for prisoners and ex-offenders in New England.


You can help fight discrimination that people with criminal records face by supporting financially or through volunteering at local organizations to secure housing for all, especially youth at risk; making conscious voting choices to prioritize candidates that support housing rights; and educating yourself to raise awareness of the barriers faced by individuals with criminal records.

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