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Is 'Housing First' The Key To Successful Prisoner Reentry?

The phrase, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” is often used with people with criminal records. The “time” of a person’s punishment often extends beyond prison walls and follows a person home. People with criminal records often have a hard time getting housing, which can make them less likely to stay out of prison, by perpetuating a revolving door of housing instability, poverty, addiction, arrest, imprisonment and release.

Two new reports underscore the importance of housing in reducing the cycle of incarceration. One, from the Prison Policy Initiative, argues that giving people housing that isn’t tied to whether a person stays sober or gets help with mental health conditions gives them the stability they need to address life crises and makes them less likely to wind up back behind bars, reports News From The States.

The other, published by Duke Law’s Wilson Center for Science and Social Justice, offers recommendations to make it easier for people returning home from prison to acquire a place to live.

“We know that homelessness and involvement in the criminal legal system can be cyclical and interrelated. Experiencing homelessness can make someone more likely to be involved in the criminal legal system and involvement in the criminal legal system can make someone more likely to experience homelessness,” said Wilson Center Policy Director Angie Weis Gammell. “Ensuring access to housing improves lives and reduces the likelihood of initial or repeat involvement in the criminal legal system.”

The Wilson Center brief suggests policymakers repeal zoning laws that make it harder for people with low and moderate incomes to obtain housing, revise public housing authority policies so they better align with federal standards for giving formerly imprisoned people access to housing, enact policies that reduce barriers the formerly incarcerated face in getting private housing, and institute interventions that meet individuals’ needs.

“Formerly incarcerated individuals face unique challenges in securing housing,” said the Wilson Center's Megan Moore. “Addressing their specific needs is crucial for ensuring housing access and stability overall as well as for ensuring the success of our returning community members.”

The consequences of homelessness and imprisonment disproportionately impact people of color, with each compounding issue perpetuating racial inequities. The Wilson Center cites research showing Black people who have the same criminal records as white people are less likely to get callbacks for jobs. Similarly, the report notes, homeless rates are about 50% higher for Black people with criminal records compared to white people with records.

The Prison Policy Initiative briefing examines the ways long-term housing can help people most at risk of going to prison: those with mental health conditions, substance use disorders or who are homeless. Reviewing more than 50 studies and reports, researchers argued that ending housing insecurity is a critical tool to reduce the number of people in jails and prisons.

“People caught in cycles of incarceration and homelessness are not all alike; they have different pathways to those experiences as well as a range of needs,” wrote Brian Nam-Sonenstein, senior editor and researcher at PPI. “But housing is one special factor that can stabilize multiple aspects of a person’s life at once.”

Where the two reports intersect is the concept of “Housing First,” an approach to homelessness that puts housing access as a first step in attaining stability.


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