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As Our Addiction to Incarceration Gets Worse, More Utahns Will Struggle to Find a Place to Live

30 June 2015 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

What does it mean, to “pay your debt to society” after committing a crime?Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 12.54.07 PM

“Paying your debt to society” implies that one day, your debt can be paid. That you will have the chance to move on.

Many Utahns who have never come into contact with the criminal justice system believe this is the way things actually work: You do some jail or prison time and/or you pay a bunch of fines, then you keep your nose clean, and eventually…it’s all part of your past.

But for millions of people in the U.S. with a criminal record – and tens of thousands in Utah - that’s not really how it works.

A criminal conviction means struggling to find work, housing, or public benefits for you and your family, and even just basic acceptance from your community – long after your official court-ordered “debt” has been paid.

Did you know that people who have only been arrested or charged – without ever being convicted – can suffer similar difficulties? Technically, these people don’t even have a “debt” to pay. They just have the “suspected criminal background” to contend with for the rest of their lives – without ever having done the crime.

Hopefully, one day, we will live in a society where landlords and employers choose not discriminate against people who have some mark on their background – whether arrest, charge or actual conviction. It will take a lot of education, advocacy and understanding before we arrive at that day.

But the ACLU of Utah believes we can at least live in a state, right now, where the government doesn’t compel landlords to discriminate based on a person’s criminal history.

This currently is happening in more than a dozen Wasatch Front cities, where landlords are rewarded with reduced licensing and impact fees, if they agree to not rent to people with a recent criminal history.

“Good Landlord” Programs – a somewhat misleading name – are voluntary programs, used in various cities, that are aimed at reducing crime and improving neighborhood safety.

Many of the provisions of these programs are good, and likely produce positive results: rewarding landlords for keeping their properties clean, safe and up to code; encouraging property owners to maintain an on-site presence to meet tenants needs; and ensuring that all properties are inspected for health and safety.

But most cities with GLPs also require participating landlords to refuse housing to someone who has a recent criminal history (as in, the last three or four years). 

Yes, of course, individual property owners - of their own free will, and exericising their private property rights - can and will decide not to rent to people with criminal histories. But if a property owner wants to give someone with a criminal record a second chance, should the government be standing in that property owner's way?

We believe that these restrictive provisions create, rather than alleviate, problems in our communities. They limit available housing for people who need stable housing to succeed on probation and/or parole. They split apart families, and separate ex-offenders from their support networks. They contribute to the unfair stigmatization of people who have been involved in the criminal justice system. They can force certain groups of people to live in dangerous areas, in unsafe conditions.

For these reasons we are committed to working with state and local policymakers to reform “Good Landlord” Programs so that they are inclusive and protective of all community members.

In order to achieve this reform, we need your help. We need to hear from tenants and landlords in Utah cities who have been negatively impacted by “Good Landlord” Programs that demand refusal of people with criminal backgrounds.

Have you ever been denied housing because of your criminal record? Did a landlord ever give the “Good Landlord” program rules as a reason to reject your application?

Let us know. Help us create change! Submit your story TODAY.