When Mark Mitchell got out of prison for his most recent felony conviction, he had nowhere to go and was left sleeping on couches, feeling like a burden to family and friends.
“A lot of people leaving prison say, ‘I’m going home.’ But you don’t have a home,” Mitchell said. “You’ve been locked up three, four, five years—you don’t have a home. You’re going to someone else’s home.”
“The same thing happened with me every time where I was like, ‘F it,’ and I’d end up back [in prison] because my ego felt demoralized, degraded. It was just like society wouldn’t give me a chance.”
Mitchell eventually met a formerly incarcerated mentor who helped him get more stability in his life. Today, he is the associate director of Teamwork Englewood, mentoring other formerly incarcerated people through the organization’s reentry programs.
Teamwork Englewood works to reduce recidivism by helping formerly incarcerated people or “returning citizens”—a term used by advocates—find housing, employment and support. There is a shortage of nonprofits like Teamwork Englewood, so they serve returning citizens in Hyde Park, Woodlawn and across Chicago’s South Side, Mitchell said.
About sixty-eight percent of returning citizens in Cook County were rearrested within three years of their release, a higher rate than Illinois as a whole, according to a 2019 study by Loyola University. The study found the highest recidivism rates among “younger individuals and those with more extensive criminal histories,” the majority of whom were non-violent offenders.
“Housing and employment are the biggest impediments—if you get a job and a place to live, you’re halfway there,” Mitchell said.
Kindness Campaign Executive Director, Founder, and President Christopher Watts said that even having a probationary sentence on his record meant that he couldn’t get an apartment in his name for ten years.
“I had a career and everything,” said Watts, a South Shore resident.
People who are released from prison without a home to return to are placed in “transitional housing” for sixty days, Mitchell said. After that, if they don’t have a plan, they often end up at homeless shelters.
“Once you’re there, you’re in an environment that’s not conducive to staying out of prison, to sobriety, to the whole reentry,” Mitchell said. “You’re back in a miserable place.”
Significant strides have been made at the city and the county level to implement policies that support returning citizens, but panelists said these policies are not consistently enforced.
University of Chicago Associate Professor Reuben Miller, who studies criminal justice policy, said that reforms often lack the teeth or the legal repercussions needed to ensure that returning citizens’ rights are protected.
The Just Housing Amendment (JHA), which took effect in early 2020, affords similar protections to renters and homeowners, requiring landlords to conduct an individualized assessment before denying returning citizens’ housing applications. The amendment also prohibits landlords from considering arrests without convictions and criminal history that is more than three years old. This has been difficult to enforce across all of the city’s landlords, particularly landlords who may only manage a few properties, the event’s speakers said.
Before blaming landlords, though, it is important to consider that they face great legal and cultural pressure to prevent crimes from occurring on their property, Miller said. Under current liability law, landlords can still be held responsible for some crimes that occur on their properties. Crimes on or near their property can also lead to a cultural perception that the building is unsafe or that the landlord has not done enough to prevent crime, leading to the loss of their reputation or their renters. For some smaller landlords, a loss in renters may mean the difference between being able to cover mortgage payments or being put out themselves, Miller said.
In this way, the belief—which Miller said is largely unfounded—that tenants with a criminal history are more likely to commit crimes can push landlords to violate reforms and discriminate against returning citizens.
“The literature on reentry, literally decades of literature, tells us that if people are housing stable, they’re less likely to engage in crime,“ Miller said. “The fact that people are housing unstable contributes to the likelihood that they’ll participate in crime.”
Last month, a popular tool used to screen tenants called TransUnion® SmartMove®, which is often used by small-scale landlords, updated its platform to follow the requirements outlined in the Just Housing Amendment. The new two-step screening process requires that applicants be pre-qualified for housing based on things like income, rental history and credit score before allowing the landlord to advance to the next step, which can include a criminal background check, according to a press release from the Cook County Commission on Human Rights. With these updates, over 7,000 housing applications per month will be processed in accordance with the Just Housing Amendment.
“Operationalizing the two-step screening process of the JHA is key to broad compliance with the Amendment,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in the release. “We must support a fair process for tenant screening throughout Cook County, so that residents with criminal records are not permanently barred from attaining housing and accessing other basic human rights.”
Miller said this move is a great example of how governing bodies can think critically about what adhering to criminal justice reforms looks like in everyday interactions.
“This is a wonderful intervention at sort-of the meso level. They’re saying, ‘Let’s think about where a landlord turns to make decisions about how they treat an individual,’” Miller said. “It’s fantastic.”
Residents with criminal records are now eligible to apply for public housing in Cook County, but only a limited number of subsidized units are available to them. According to Mitchell, it is not enough to meet the need.
Chicago made it illegal to require applicants to check a box on job applications if they have a criminal record back in 2015, but panelists said they hear reports that such boxes are still being used by some companies.
“You see the same thing among employers – liability concerns and also cultural concerns about what people believe the right thing to do is,” Miller said. “And we think the right thing to do is to exclude people who may have caused harm in the past.”
“I am not saying that it’s morally right to exclude,” he added. “I am saying that folks exclude some people because they want to…and some people because that’s what they feel like they have to do to be a good landlord or a good employer.”
According to Watts, employers should not be able to see specific criminal records unless the background check company determines there is a “proximate cause” to deny employment based on a person’s record, like if someone convicted of securities fraud applied for a job at a bank.
All of these challenges conspire to make reintegration feel impossible for someone leaving prison with no resources, said Cook County Public Defender Steven Tyson. After seeing his clients end up back behind bars for years, Tyson decided to take a more proactive approach to his role as a public defender through educational outreach.
“This is something that affects entire communities,” he said.
It affects low-income communities and communities of color more than others, said Briana Payton, policy analyst for the Chicago Community Bond Fund.
The common practice of holding defendants on cash bonds as they await trial “creates a legal system that is different for the poor than it is for the wealthy,” she said. “That is violating our right to equal protection under the law.”
The Pretrial Fairness Act, passed with Gov. JB Pritzker’s criminal justice reform bill in 2021, was designed to address this, eliminating wealth-based detention to keep more defendants out of jail while awaiting trial.
“There are people that might have ultimately been acquitted, but just in that time spent in jail awaiting trial they lost their job, lost their housing or their family got evicted,” Payton said. “…That damage cannot be undone.”
The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2023, replaces this system by allowing courts to use “risk assessment tools” to require pre-trial detention in cases that might pose a flight risk or a risk to public safety—a stipulation that some fear could be abused or overused.
This stipulation can only be used in certain circumstances and a hearing must be held to determine whether it is necessary, according to a press release from State Senator Robert Peters (D-Chicago), who introduced the Pretrial Fairness Act in January of last year.
“Being poor is not a crime, end of story,” Peters said in the release. “Folks who have the means to cover their bail don’t spend a minute in jail, while others could be locked up for weeks or even months before their trial begins. This is not a just or equitable system, and I’m proud to have fought for its elimination.”
Payton said she and the Chicago Community Bond Fund will be watching carefully to hold the city accountable in the enforcement of this new law when it goes into effect in the new year.
For now, Mitchell said he does not refer to himself as a “returning citizen,” but, rather, as a “returning resident.”
“If I were a citizen, then I would have the same rights that any other citizen does and those rights would be protected under the law,” he said.
Miller agreed with Mitchell, saying it makes more sense to think of the term as aspirational.
“It suggests, ‘I will be able to move about the world freely like everyone else.I’ll be able to vote or pay my taxes or provide for my family.’ …But those things are all diminished once accused of a crime,” Miller said. “It’s the moment of accusation that really matters. Not even proved to have been a criminal, not convicted yet, but before the conviction is even settled you live under a different set of social conditions than everyone else.”
Kelli Duncan is a local journalist and currently earning her Master of Science in Journalism at Northwestern University, specializing in investigative journalism. This is her first story for the Weekly.