With documentaries and books that spell out the hopeless disaster that is mass incarceration in the United States, also come tales from those who study the phenomenon — and who have lived through it — that the entire process is made more difficult for Black people.
According to the Sentencing Project, one out of every three Black men in America will go to prison in their lifetime. The Sentencing Project also reports that Black women are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be incarcerated.
There are many difficulties after release as well. Ex-cons cannot vote, and are required in many places, such as when acquiring employment and signing a housing lease, to disclose whether they have ever been convicted of a felony. A recent study conducted by the Equal Rights Center highlights the problems that formerly incarcerated Black women encounter while looking for housing.
The study, conducted in the Washington D.C. area, tested landlords at 60 different properties, with Black and white female applicants who disclosed identical crimes that they had committed and served time for. A Black woman and a white woman would separately apply at the properties, and each would tell the landlord about their criminal conviction. The study found that many landlords were less likely to rent to Black women with criminal records when compared to white women with the same conviction.
Twenty-eight percent of the tests “revealed a criminal records screening policy in place that may have an illegal disparate impact on the basis of race” under the federal Fair Housing Act. The Equal Rights Center reports that the “possibly discriminatory treatment” fell into one of three categories: a landlord gave different information or quality of service to the women; the landlord “reacted differently” when a woman disclosed her criminal past; or the landlord speculated about how the woman’s criminal record would affect her housing application.
The Equal Rights Center found that 47 percent of the landlords reacted in a way that favored the white woman. For example, one of the landlords told the Black woman that her application would be denied because of her felony conviction, while the white woman was told that they “can probably work something out.”
The ERC had 10 recommendations for how this could be solved. The first includes: “In light of the disproportionate effect that the criminal legal system has on African Americans, housing providers large and small must evaluate and revise the role that criminal records screening policies and practices play in their application decisions to ensure that they are serving a substantial, legitimate, non-discriminatory interest and not as a proxy for racial discrimination.”
Additionally, the ERC said, “To avoid using seemingly neutral screening requirements based on items like criminal background and credit as proxies for race and other types of illegal discrimination, housing providers need to communicate transparently with applicants about what their screening criteria are.”
The ERC said they are invested in challenging and changing local, state, and federal laws and regulations to protect those with criminal records so they can find places to live.
“The District in particular,” the ERC writes in their report, “is in an excellent position to enact legislation locally that would compel local housing providers to adopt the recommendations above and beyond to ensure that individuals with criminal records are able to secure safe housing.”
In regard to women, specifically Black women ex-cons who are the most vulnerable in their attempts to secure housing, the ERC also suggested a remedy.
“Researchers, policymakers, advocates, and service providers should use an explicitly intersectional approach in the collection and analysis of data, development and implementation of law and policy, and delivery of services.”
“The term intersectionality,” the ERC says, “refers to the unique reality a person experiences based upon the interplay of one’s identities.” An intersectional approach in this specific study would be the opposite of a colorblind one and would address the specific plights that Black women face compared to white women.
The ERC clarified that their study only examined how bias against those with criminal records is racialized, and that to get different results, different studies would need to be conducted.
“This investigation examined the prevalence of racial discrimination in housing against Black and white women posing as having criminal records,” they note. “A similar investigation that utilized only male testers, or testers of different races, would likely yield different results.”