Mass Incarceration, Private Prisons, and the Homelessness Crisis in the United States

The United States accounts for 5 percent of the world population. Despite having a nominal portion of the Earth’s population, the U.S. has an astounding 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated individuals. In 2016, there were approximately 2.2 million in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. This includes people incarcerated on the local, state, and federal levels across the country.

The total number of people under some type of supervision in the criminal justice system (local, state, and federal), including incarceration, probation, and parole is over 7 million people. This number is substantially higher than what existed in 1980: 1.8 million.

The increase in the number of people incarcerated as well as on some type of supervision in the criminal justice system is the result of what many scholars and criminal justice reform advocates have come to call mass incarceration. There are a number of factors driving mass incarceration in the United States, including the so-called War on Drugs and the advent of private prisons. The sharp increase in the number of individuals subject to incarceration and other types of supervision in the criminal justice system has contributed to the overall rate of homelessness in the United States in the past 20 years or more.

Landlords and Individuals with Criminal Records

One of the factors that enhances the rate of homelessness among individuals with criminal records is based simply and directly on the manner in which many landlords respond to a prospective tenant who has been convicted of a crime. Indeed, it is important to note that some landlords refuse to rent to individuals who’ve been charged with but never convicted for a crime.

The Office of General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has taken the stance that a landlord who denies housing to any person with any type of criminal record arguably arises to the level of unlawful discrimination. This argument is based in part on the fact that there is a markedly disproportionate share of people of color with criminal records in the United States.

Blacks and Latinos make up a combined total of about 30 percent of the U.S. population and yet comprise a full 60 percent of the population of incarcerated people in country. Thus, a blanket prohibition on renting to any person with any type of criminal conviction would fall disproportionately more severely on people of color.

The HUD General Counsel has developed recommended criteria that a landlord should apply when it comes to screening an individual with a criminal record. Specifically, HUD recommends a landlord take into account:

  • Nature of offense
  • Severity of offense
  • Length of time since offense occurred

When legal challenges are made to a landlord’s criminal history screening practice, courts tend to look at three factors:

  • Does a criminal history policy have a discriminatory impact?
  • Does the criminal history policy achieve a nondiscriminatory objective?
  • Is a less discriminatory alternative available?

Due to the barriers to gaining approval to rent housing, including potentially discriminatory ones, a disproportionate percentage of people with criminal records end up homeless. This includes individuals who’ve convictions for more minor offenses. Moreover, the number of people ending up on the street for these reasons is disproportionately individuals of color.

Employers and Individuals with Criminal Records

The second factor associated with individuals with criminal histories and homelessness is found in the challenges this cohort of people face when it comes to obtaining gainful employment. About 34 percent of all homeless men between the ages of 25 to 54 have criminal records, according to research undertaken by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The inability to find gainful employment, which is a prevalent issue when an individual initially is released from a term of incarceration, oftentimes results in homelessness. Moreover, the recidivism rate is particularly high among recently released individuals unable to obtain gainful employment who end up homeless.

Reevaluating Public Policy, Laws, and the Impact of Private Prisons

There has been some movement towards reevaluation the policies and laws that have resulted in mass incarceration, and ultimately associated homelessness, in the United States. Indeed, legislation has passed by Congress and signed into the by the President that provides a modicum of prison and sentencing reform on the federal level.

While this reform legislation is a move in the right direction, albeit a somewhat smaller one, more needs to be done in order to reduce homelessness by reigning in mass incarceration in the United States. In addition to continuing to reassess sentencing laws, guidelines, and practices, a close evaluation of the impact of private prisons needs to be undertaken.

At this juncture, more definitive data needs to be collected and astutely analyzed in regard to how the existence of private prisons drives the incarceration rate and to what degree. Opponents to the utilization of private prisons contend that as profit-driven enterprises, they necessarily depend on higher rates of incarceration to enhance their bottom lines. There is a growing body of evidence that abuse has occurred in the criminal justice system to lock more individuals in private prisons for disparate periods of time. (As an aside, this has included the inappropriate placement of minors in privately run youth correctional facilities.)

In the final analysis, dealing with inappropriate mass incarceration and addressing the illicit impact on the criminal justice system that appears to arise via the private prison industry are necessary first steps in stemming the tide of homelessness among individuals with criminal records. In addition, the manner in which property owners and management companies must be closely examined and reformed to comply with existing laws and regulations associated with fair and nondiscriminatory housing practices.