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.