Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The challenges faced by formerly incarcerated people in rural America

Nearly 1 in 3 Americans have a criminal record, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. It is common knowledge that the poor and people of color are disproportionately represented within this astonishingly high number. People may be surprised, however, that rural communities are disproportionately represented as well (see this earlier blog post regarding the rise of mass incarceration in rural areas).

The collateral consequences of a record can make it impossible for someone to find employment or housing because even a minor offense can negatively affect a person’s hiring prospects. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that more than 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals are unemployed 1 year after being released. People living in rural areas face an even steeper challenge due to the higher rates of unemployment compared to urban areas.

Furthermore, the lack of affordable housing is already a significant issue for low-income rural residents. Formerly incarcerated individuals must also deal with public housing authorities that have broad discretion to set policies that screen out prospective tenants with criminal convictions. Anecdotally, an organization I worked for saw anyone with two misdemeanor convictions denied housing. And despite new federal guidelines, many landlords discriminate against people with criminal convictions, regardless of the type, circumstances, or age of the conviction.

Fortunately, in many instances, it is possible for formerly incarcerated individuals to clear their records, thereby restoring both housing and economic opportunities. Unfortunately, that process can be complicated and success often depends on the availability of legal assistance. Although non-profit organizations and pro bono legal efforts have started to meet this need, the overwhelming majority of this assistance is located in major urban centers. Without an expansion of legal aid in this area, this access to justice gap will simply continue to grow as more people are released from incarceration.

As an example, let's look at people with criminal records living in rural regions of California’s Central Valley. Yuba, Colusa, Sutter and Stanislaus Counties lie in the heart of the Central Valley. Although Colusa is the only county designated by the USDA as nonmetro, many parts of these counties are very rural. Other than packets of information at courthouse self-help centers, these counties have no legal organizations assisting low-income people with record clearance remedies. According to the US Census Bureau, more than 15% of the residents of these four counties live below the poverty line, with the highest being 21% in Yuba County.

The need for record clearing assistance throughout rural California is massive. Over 5 million Californians live in rural areas, and approximately 1.6 million are eligible for legal aid services, so realistically there are over 500,000 underserved individuals with a criminal history in rural California. Other states, especially those who already face a significant access to justice gap for their rural communities, also have a growing population of underserved individuals. Not only does this keep people in poverty, it also has a drain on the national economy. The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimated that there is a loss of $78 to $87 billion in annual GDP.

However, the chances of this need being filled in the next few years are slim. Most of the organizations with the capacity to begin assisting this population are funded in part by the Legal Services Corporation, and the first draft of the Trump budget has completed eliminated the organization. Previous administrations efforts to do this have been unsuccessful, but it is likely there will be some cuts to the program forcing legal aid organizations to decrease, not expand, their efforts.


Anne Badasci said...

Great post! This reminded me both of what our guest speakers a few weeks back spoke about as far as how difficult it can be to obtain good affordable housing in rural areas, and of Making a Murderer, where we see some of the ramifications of leaving prison (even after a false conviction) to return to your rural community. I do think there is a massive problem with the way we handle imprisonment in our country, and the fact that it affects rural communities at a greater rate is even sadder. I've always tended to think the problem lies in primary education, and a post explaining school systems in rural America and possible connections to the "prison pipeline" could be really interesting!

K. Harrington said...

This is an interesting post that raises a lot of questions. For example, I wonder what types of crimes rural prosecutors focus on – are they crimes related to the heroin epidemic or are they other types of offenses? If they are drug-related, I would be interested to know how many of these people are repeat offenders? Based on your post and past class discussions, I would think that the rise in rural incarceration is probably the result of many different factors, including a lack of: access to social services, community supports, drug treatment options, employment opportunities, and quality legal representation. In a previous comment, I pointed out an example of one rural jurisdiction that is employing a creative legal solution to combat their opiate epidemic ( Although this approach only targets one type of “criminal” behavior, states and local communities need to recognize and prioritize other ways of responding to illegal activity in rural areas.

Mollie M said...

Kaly: what an important post! I am personally struggling with the idea of being part of an occupation that wields so much influence, but that also is increasingly unavailable to certain populations. If some or all of these programs are cut, ethically is it the profession’s responsibility to step up? Or is it the moral responsibility of the national and state bar associations? The ABA’s mission statement is to: “To serve equally our members, our profession and the public by defending liberty and delivering justice as the national representative of the legal profession.” Some of their goals listed under the mission statement is to “work for just laws, including human rights, and a fair legal process” and “assure meaningful access to justice for all persons” and even “preserve the independence of the legal profession and the judiciary.” Wouldn’t legal services that are only available to those with some wealth or who live in urban centers run afoul of these goals?

Wynter K Miller said...

Several of the comments above raise some interesting secondary questions. Anne Badasci's reference to Making a Murderer made me wonder: Is there any empirical data on wrongful conviction in America? I found an interesting opinion piece in the Washington Post, which touches on many of the issues raised in this post. According to the article, the average prison time served by exonerated individuals is more than nine years—and the number of people wrongfully convicted is not (as one would hope) negligible. A report by the National Registry of Exonerations suggests that "there are far more false convictions than exonerations," most of which are never discovered or remedied (see The PEW study you link to and, most especially, the graph depicting "Ex-Offender Laws, State by State," is fascinating. With respect to rurality, it appears that several of the most rural states (e.g., according to the Daily Yonder: Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Iowa, Mississippi, Alabama, Maine, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and West Virginia) do not have ban the box laws or offer certificates of rehabilitation.

Washington Post:

Daily Yonder:

RGL said...

"Over 5 million Californians live in rural areas, and approximately 1.6 million are eligible for legal aid services, so realistically there are over 500,000 underserved individuals with a criminal history in rural California." I'm curious where you get the 500,000 figure from. If 1/3 of all Americans have a criminal record and 1.6 million people in rural California are eligible for legal aid (is this your definition of underserved?), then that figure is an underestimate. Numbers are powerful, and should be used carefully.

This post made me think of Prison Town, USA. Even though the movie focused more on the economic impact prisons have had on a small town in rural California, you mention a lot of economic consequences for formerly incarcerated people. Prison Town, USA followed one story of a man who struggled to find work after getting out of prison and we saw that his solution was to move away from rurality. Part of me struggles with the idea that rural living is just no longer viable. It is inefficient (in an economic sense) and from all of our discussions in class we have seen how many obstacles are face in rural life. If everyone was in the city instead, wouldn't all of these problems be solved? Yeah right.

Thanks for this post, very informative and insightful.

Jenna said...

To repeat the sentiments of the above commenters, this a great post on a really important subject. Setting aside my personal beliefs regarding how people with criminal histories should be treated (hint: they should be treated like normal people) I do think it is interesting that employers and landlords place so much emphasis on individuals having misdemeanor convictions. In California, a misdemeanor can be trespassing, petty theft, unlicensed driving, public drunkenness, soliciting a sex worker, domestic violence, reckless driving, or many other such offenses. Due to the wide variety of what is considered to be a misdemeanor, as well as how many of these crimes are nonviolent, it seems that judging someone based solely on the fact that they have a misdemeanor in their past is a poor way to judge whether someone will be a responsible tenant or employee. While I think that helping individuals get their misdemeanors expunged is important and necessary work I also think that maybe we, as lawyers and as citizens, need to try and do a better job at decreasing the stigma that having a criminal record may cause.

louis rr said...

I like your blog. What you say makes sense. How much of what you talk about is actually read by folks "out there?" Have you thought of a PODCAST?

And, I am wondering, considering the degree of poverty in the rural communities, HOW one would convince folks to SEE THEMSELVES as "fellow victims," in this capitalist system we have? I understand the insularity, and the fear... BUT the "rage" is often misplaced.
And, certainly, there are lots of people in many a town out there who are NOT white. There appears to be, particularly amongst younger people... a groundswell of disgust with the status quo.

How... would one ORGANIZE rural communities, to the degree that THEY IDENTIFY with "fellow victims," in the urban areas... as see THE NEED for increased unification on the basis of CLASS?
Rather than harbor resentments, for the "moochers," (as they are often brainwashed to believe), WHY can WE not "spread the wealth" by recognizing there is "strength in numbers?"

For example: "Federal Anti-Poverty Programs Primarily Help the GOP's Base,"

Aren't people out there becoming aware that THEY are truly screwing themselves, by allowing "faux Republican Populisits" to run game on them?