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Expert Brief

Covid-19 Has Made Reentry and Life After Prison Even Harder

The pandemic adds more challenges for people with a criminal record, especially for those recently released from prison.

Published: February 10, 2021

Nearly every corner of Amer­ican soci­ety has changed to adapt to Covid-19. Work­places moved to video­con­fer­en­cing, stores to curb­side pickup, and all levels of govern­ment rushed to shore up the social safety net. Despite that, many are still strug­gling with unem­ploy­ment and poverty. It’s often hard­est for people with a crim­inal record — espe­cially those who have recently been released from prison — who are all too often an after­thought or seen as social exiles unworthy of help.

Even in the best of times, people with a crim­inal record face stigma in the job and hous­ing markets and beyond. The pandemic and reces­sion have compoun­ded these disad­vant­ages, placing formerly imprisoned people at even greater risk of poverty and other hard­ships.

All too often federal and state policies have failed to meet the unique needs of people whose lives have been impacted by the crim­inal justice system. As Congress final­izes another Covid-19 relief pack­age, lawmakers should ensure that it does­n’t leave out people with a past crim­inal history, who badly need assist­ance just as much as the rest of us.

The pandemic has proven espe­cially deadly for pris­ons and jails, where over­crowding and resource constraints made it nearly impossible to protect incar­cer­ated people and staff from Covid-19. Respond­ing to advoc­ates across the coun­try, correc­tional officers, sher­iffs, and lawmakers released some people from custody to try to reduce the spread of disease. States and cities also freed people who had been charged with low-level offenses — thou­sands in total. Not enough was done, but these were import­ant steps.

Unfor­tu­nately, people released from pris­ons through special initi­at­ives or other­wise still face many other chal­lenges. The first year of release is intensely diffi­cult for people leav­ing prison, as they struggle to meet the demands of their new lives. Newly released people face a number of barri­ers to stable hous­ing, food, jobs, and health­care. Without these basic essen­tials recidiv­ism is an unfor­tu­nately likely outcome, espe­cially (and para­dox­ic­ally) for those who are under proba­tion or parole super­vi­sion.

Poverty compounds these chal­lenges. A Bren­nan Center study released last year shows that those who have spent time in prison consequently earn around half of what their non-previ­ously incar­cer­ated peers earn annu­ally. You might think that this effect fades with time. But our research shows that people with a crim­inal record face a life­time of dimin­ished earn­ings, placing them at substan­tially greater risk of fall­ing into poverty.

These chal­lenges became that much more acute in 2020. Early, pandemic-related releases — while far super­ior to the altern­at­ive of contin­ued deten­tion — left people with little time to effect­ively coordin­ate reentry plans and set up other resources, magni­fy­ing the already exist­ing chal­lenges of reentry. In many instances, there was not enough time to enroll eligible return­ing citizens into import­ant programs like Medi­caid and SNAP.

Stable hous­ing and a good job are often crit­ical parts of reentry, but also proved diffi­cult amidst the pandemic. Given the higher risk of expos­ure to Covid-19, famil­ies may have also been fear­ful about accom­mod­at­ing loved ones just released from prison. Further, find­ing and keep­ing a job during the largest economic crisis since the Great Depres­sion is espe­cially diffi­cult for people who bear the stigma of a crim­inal record. Accord­ing to one researcher, between 30 to 50 percent of people under community super­vi­sion — parole or proba­tion — had lost a job since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. And compet­i­tion is fierce for those jobs that remain, as newly released people may find them­selves compet­ing against newly unem­ployed people who have more work exper­i­ence.

At the same time, some of the govern­ment’s tools for respond­ing to the economic crisis have little or noth­ing to offer people return­ing home from prison. Expan­ded unem­ploy­ment insur­ance was a lifesaver during the pandem­ic’s first peak, but — except in rare cases — people leav­ing prison won’t meet eligib­il­ity criteria.

Imprisoned people are eligible for the direct cash payments provided by (among other legis­la­tion) the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Secur­ity (CARES) Act. Those who are still in prison but about to be released are also eligible, thanks to a recent court order. But justice-involved people are less likely to have bank accounts, making direct deposit impossible and delay­ing receipt of these payments.

One way federal recov­ery programs can better support those in need is by ensur­ing that justice-involved people are included in any jobs or stim­u­lus programs. Unfor­tu­nately, so far, the federal govern­ment has only imposed new hard­ships on those with crim­inal records.

People who have served time in prison are actu­ally more likely to be entre­pren­eurs compared to those who have not — perhaps due to the diffi­culty of being hired by an exist­ing employer. Yet the Small Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion, which sets eligib­il­ity stand­ards for aid under the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protec­tion Program (PPP), initially disqual­i­fied busi­nesses from receiv­ing those funds if any owner with a major stake in the busi­ness had been convicted of a felony within the past five years. In the worst economic crisis in nearly a century, people with crim­inal records were once again left in economic exile.

The Amer­ican Civil Liber­ties Union respon­ded by filing lawsuits against the policy, citing the rule’s poten­tial for a dispar­ate impact on people of color. These lawsuits, along with public pres­sure, led the Trump Admin­is­tra­tion to ease these filing restric­tions, but only a week before the relief applic­a­tion dead­line. Under the new terms, among other changes, only finan­cial crimes would bar eligib­il­ity for five years; for other felon­ies, the look-back period was reduced to one year. These more relaxed rules continue to govern the “second round” of PPP loans, which star­ted in Janu­ary.

Poli­cy­makers should bear the consequences in mind as they work on future recov­ery legis­la­tion. Pres­id­ent Biden’s proposed $1.9 tril­lion rescue bill, for example, includes a “job corps” of health service work­ers. Another idea floated by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) calls for an ambi­tious infra­struc­ture program. Both propos­als could mean job oppor­tun­it­ies for those with crim­inal records — provided Congress does­n’t saddle them with unne­ces­sar­ily punit­ive back­ground-check require­ments.

During these historic and over­lap­ping crises, our nation’s excess­ive punit­ive­ness simply makes a bad prob­lem worse. As the pandemic contin­ues, the need for govern­ment assist­ance is unlikely to dissip­ate. How we treat return­ing citizens under these programs will show once again whether we view them as an after­thought.