COVID-19 Response Must Include Youth and Adults Impacted by the Criminal Justice System

By Duy Pham and Kisha Bird

As the coronavirus pandemic and public health crisis stymies the U.S. economy, youth and adults impacted by the criminal justice system face significant challenges to achieving economic stability. Criminal justice advocates have rightly focused on the immediate health needs of incarcerated individuals by calling for the decarceration of vulnerable populations and those in pretrial detention. Policymakers must also address the economic stability of those impacted by the justice system who have been struggling to find employment and meet the needs of themselves and their families. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, formerly incarcerated individuals were unemployed at a rate of over 27 percent, with the rate disproportionately higher for Black men and Black women at 35.2 and 43.6 percent, respectively. This pre-pandemic unemployment rate of 27 percent, which is nearly five times higher than the rate for the U.S. population, is due to structural barriers such as discrimination, arbitrary licensing bans and more, that preclude formerly incarcerated individuals from working. Furthermore, research shows that when formerly incarcerated people do find work, they are more likely to be jobs paying low wages, with their median wages just $10,090 within the first year of returning to their communities.

While policymakers look to stabilize workers during the crisis, individuals impacted by the justice system are more likely to be unemployed or working low-wage jobs that may be less secure and/or put them at risk of infection. Over 30 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed up to two years after returning to their communities. Nearly 13 percent are estimated to be unemployed after four or more years. This lack of employment history can limit their ability to receive paid family and medical leave and expanded unemployment benefits passed in previous response bills..

Furthermore, immigrants without work authorization—some of whom have been detained because of heightened immigration enforcement—have been excluded from all of the bill’s provisions. In addition, those with delinquent child support may have this garnished from their stimulus payments.. Congress must ensure that youth and adults, including those who have recently returned home, can get cash, housing, food and nutrition assistance, and access to physical and mental health care.

Focus on economic stability

When the immediate crisis ends, people impacted by the justice system are going to face heightened challenges finding quality employment and economic stability. Some experts predict the nationwide unemployment rate could reach 20 percent—and will almost certainly be significantly higher for those facing the structural barriers of the criminal justice system. These barriers include gaps in employment history, discrimination, licensing bans, and more that arise from systems and policies—not individual choices.

We must begin to invest significantly in pathways to quality employment for this particular population and other workers with barriers to employment. Congress can help provide economic stability to youth and adults impacted by the justice system by:

  • Funding large-scale subsidized employment programs. A substantial investment in the workforce system must emphasize subsidized employment and “earn-as-you-learn” models such as transitional jobs that target those with barriers to employment including people impacted by the justice system. These jobs use time-limited, wage-paying jobs that combine real work, skill development, and supportive services to help participants transition successfully into the labor market. Transitional jobs are an effective model for individuals impacted by the justice system and support employers to meet the demands of our workforce. 
  • Strengthening and expanding existing federal programs. The public workforce system under the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) is locally driven, which can allow communities to provide services more efficiently. WIOA prioritizes services to individuals with barriers to employment, including those impacted by the criminal justice system. However, Congress must intentionally target resources to serve individuals impacted by the justice system during this time of crisis. Congress must also provide additional funding to existing Department of Labor reentry programs. And federal policymakers must make new, significant investments in the entire workforce system, including for WIOA to support those impacted by the justice system.

State and local actions

Incarcerated individuals are among those most vulnerable to getting the coronavirus. States must do more to protect the health and wellbeing of those who are incarcerated and their families, as well as to prevent a deeper public health crisis. This includes decarcerating jails, prisons, and detention centers, as well as reducing admissions into confinement.

Some states restrict Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits to individuals with certain convictions and/or require onerous work requirements to receive benefits. These programs also often impose time limits—which states can suspend—for the receipt of benefits. Because of their barriers to economic security, people impacted by the justice system need access to ongoing cash and housing assistance, food and nutrition supports, and physical and mental health services during and after the immediate crisis.

A significant group of people impacted by the justice system is the 4.5 million people under community supervision through probation and parole. Many of these people are at risk of being reincarcerated because of technical probation and parole violations such as missing an appointment with a probation or parole officer, failing to pay fines and fees, and failing to find employment. In fact, an estimated 25 percent of reincarcerated individuals are there because of such violations.

State and local officials must:

  • Decarcerate people in jails, prisons, and detention centers and reduce admissions. State and local officials must immediately release those who are most vulnerable to coronavirus. Additionally, state and local officials should further reduce incarcerated populations by—among other things—releasing those in pre-trial detention, youth who are incarcerated, and those being held for unpaid money bail or immigration bonds, immigration detainer holds, and technical violations of community supervision. Additionally, states must use their power to severely limit ongoing incarceration, especially as officials issue mandatory stay-at-home orders that threaten incarceration for violation.   
  • Suspend or eliminate restrictions on cash, food and nutrition, housing and health, and mental health supports. While some states have already suspended work requirements, they must also discontinue the practice of denying benefits due to conviction history. States should also stop other restrictions for the duration of the public health crisis and throughout the recovery.
  • Eliminate the threat of reincarceration for technical community supervision violations  and provide cash, food, and housing assistance to ensure economic stability. People should not be incarcerated for technical violations that disrupt their successful reentry, particularly during this public health crisis when job losses are increasing, wages are low, and people may be discriminated against in the hiring process. In addition, because individuals under community supervision may not have resources to meet their basic needs, states and localities must connect them to supports without penalty. 

The next COVID response package must center equity and justice. Individuals impacted by the criminal justice system have been historically oppressed and are even further marginalized during times of crisis. While we fight to advance economic justice, we must also center the needs of this community and ensure our nation’s response is inclusive and just.