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HANO adopts new criminal background policy

28th May 2013   ·   0 Comments

By David T. Baker
Contributing Writer

The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) last week took its first step to eliminating barriers persons with criminal histories face in seeking affordable housing and employment.

Following its May board meeting, HANO announced a new policy called the Criminal Background Policy which will purportedly provide greater access to HANO services to all individuals regardless of criminal records.

“This policy will affect both the housing and the employment side of HANO,” said Maggie Merrill, HANO’s Senior Advisor to Administrative Receiver David Gilmore. “On the housing side, it affects admissions to both our Section 8 program and our public housing program.”

The new policy was adopted by the HANO board at its March 26 meeting with the intention of helping ex-offenders more easily transition into new lives by preventing those who apply for housing or employment opportunities with HANO from being barred on the basis of a criminal record.

On the housing side, HANO anticipates that this new policy will be most impactful on individuals and families already living in public housing.

“We don’t expect this will result in a lot of new applications to HANO housing for new families,” said Merrill. This expectation is based on a recent suspension of HANO’s voucher program due to an oversupplying of housing vouchers.

“What we’re really expecting,” said Merrill, “is that this will affect family members that will be able to now rejoin their families that are living in public housing or in Section 8.”

Before the adoption of the new policy, families in public housing that had family members who were either coming out of incarceration or had past convictions were screened out of the housing pool, leaving them unable to live with their families.

On the employment side, the policy removes questioning about criminal records from the initial application process so that applicants will be reviewed based on skill and qualifications rather than be screened out due to a criminal record.

“We no longer ask about criminal background on our applications,” Merrill said. “So we don’t ever ask about criminal record until we’ve made you a conditional offer of employment.

“For instance, in my situation, I went to an interview, they offered me the job, then they said ‘OK. Now we will run a criminal background check.’ And if something comes up, we will review that because we also recognize all criminal convictions necessarily relate to that specific type of job. The example I always use is obviously if you’ve been convicted of some sort of fraudulent behavior or embezzlement in the past, you’re not going to get hired in a job in the finance department. But it doesn’t mean that you’re not necessarily qualified to work in some other department of HANO that has nothing to do with money or controlling contracts or that sort of thing.

“That’s the purpose of this: to make sure that we’re not screening on criminal background until we find out whether or not you’re actually qualified for that position, and then if you are qualified and you do have a criminal record, we scrutinize that again to say if it’s something that’s risky to that particular position in and of itself or does this criminal conviction really have no affect on their ability to perform the job.”

While that policy has been changed, Merrill cautions that federal regulations are still in play and that HANO must adhere to them.

“There are some federally required categories that are basically what we call ‘automatic bars,’” said Merrill. These automatic bars pertain to convictions pertaining to drug manufacturing and sex crimes.

“For instance, if you’ve ever been convicted of producing methamphetamine at a housing authority property, you are banned for life from moving back to housing authority property no matter if it was five years ago or 20 years ago,” Merrill explained.

“The other federal ban, or ‘bar,’ is if you are on the lifetime sex offender registration, you are automatically banned. Those are federal guidelines the Housing Authority has to abide by.”

In order to build and implement its new policies, HANO contracted with the VERA Institute of Justice, a national research and policy nonprofit agency.

“What the VERA Institute is doing…they have created a pretrial screening instrument based on their extensive research that looks at risks of previous offenders to reoffend,” said Merrill. “So, they are helping us to come up with a tool that we can use to assess people’s risks to reoffend and their risks to the community.

By utilizing VERA’s research and tools, HANO will able to do risk assessments on its applicants, anticipating the level of risk an applicant may represent to a community, even if that risk does not make an applicant ineligible for services.

“We anticipate that there will be some serious crimes that are risks to the community that will not be automatic bars, but will really raise a lot of flags and say ‘We need really look at this and make sure that this is not a serious risk to the health and well-being of the community itself,” Merrill told The Louisiana Weekly.

HANO doesn’t currently have its own risk assessment tool.

“That’s what VERA is doing now. That’s part of this implementation process. They’ve been working on a risk assessment tool for us for a couple months now.

“They’re going to be finalizing it and then training us on how to implement that.”

Implementation & Accountability

Measurement mechanisms will also be put in place in order to track progress and ensure efficiency in implementation.

“That’s one thing that VERA is also helping us do, is come up with an internal evaluation system because we anticipate that there will be some give and take on these criteria…after we use it for six months, a year, may say ‘You know what, we need to adjust this because this is over-weighted or we’re missing this critical issue.

“So there’s always the anticipation that we are going to be having to make some adjustments to those criteria; so we will have an evaluation tool built in so that we make sure that we’re implementing this appropriately. And also, just tracking to makes sure HANO’s doing what we say we’re going to do.

“We don’t want to implement this policy then continue with the same procedures that we’ve been using with the same outcomes for the past ten years. We want to see different outcomes. We’re definitely are going to be measuring that and following that up.”

HANO also made changes to other procedural documents to ensure that all policies were in compliance with the criminal background policy.

“This month, we adopted changes to several of our procedural documents that govern admissions to public housing, admissions to Section 8, our employment program as well as our procurement program,” Merrill told The Louisiana Weekly.

Administrative Receiver David Gilmore approved amendments to HANO’s Admissions and Continued Occupancy Policy (ACOP), The Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP) Administrative Plan, the Procurement Policy, and the Employee Personnel Manual recommended by the Vera Institute reflecting the Criminal Background Policy.

“What VERA did, and what I did with them, as a way to implement our Criminal Background Policy statement, they went into these other procedural documents and made sure that anything related to criminal background screening or basically how we admit people to programs or how we hire people based on criminal background policies made any adjustments that were needed so that they were in compliance with this new criminal background policy statement,” said Merrill.

“Other than the two federally required categories, no applicant will be automatically barred from receiving housing assistance because of his or her criminal background,” said Receiver Gilmore. “We are taking the necessary steps to amend the ACOP to make sure that those with criminal activity in their past who now seek productive lifestyles have a shot at a new beginning.”

ACOP consolidates screening procedures and requirements. HANO will continue to conduct criminal background checks for all applicants 18 years and above to determine acceptance or denial of admission. HANO’s amendment to the agency’s Procurement Policy establishes the guidelines for the procurement of supplies, equipment, services and construction. In accordance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment, the revised policy allows access to employment on all HANO-funded projects located at agency job sites. HANO recommends that all contractors subject to the policy adopt best practices by developing written procedures for screening applicants, and suggest they consider the nature of work to be performed, age at the time of conviction, time since conviction, and nature of the offense, and should also remove questions about criminal histories from job applications.

The changes Gilmore approved to the Employee Personnel Manual related to the new policy. “We will no longer inquire into an applicant’s criminal background at the time of the application. We will do so only when we have preliminarily determined to offer someone a job and will not deny otherwise suitable candidate employment except in the most serious circumstances,” said Gilmore. “If we’re serious about changing behavior we have to remove the barriers to opportunities for decent housing and employment.”

According to Merrill, many of HANO’s property managers were surprised for the need for the new policy stating that discriminatory practices based on criminal history weren’t really a major issue that they’d observed.

“When we first started looking at this a lot of our property managers said, a lot of people said, ‘This really isn’t an issue. We don’t exclude people for criminal background policies,’ which is not necessarily true to varying degrees, but what HANO said is ‘The issue is that because there’s the perception that we exclude you because of your criminal background policy, whether it’s for employment or for housing, people don’t even apply to our housing.’”

“So you’ve got families…that have members of their families that are either coming out of incarceration or have had past criminal convictions that are not able to live with their other family members because of this perception that they would not be admitted.”

It’s a perception that Merrill hopes the new policy will combat and create a new perception of welcome to all individuals interested in both employment and housing opportunities HANO has to offer.

“On the employment side, we really hope that it results in a lot more people, qualified people applying for these jobs,” Merrill said, assuring that individuals with criminal records are not only eager to have jobs but are also qualified in many cases.

“We recognize that there are a lot of people with criminal convictions that have a lot of skills and would do a great job and excluding them solely because they have a criminal record and past criminal convictions is really not fair and is counter to what HANO is trying to do.

“And on the housing side, we anticipate that it will result in a lot of families being able to be reunified.”

“It’s just a two-page, simple statement but it’s really setting out HANO’s intent,” Merrill said. “This is our intent going forward. This is our motivation for looking at our criminal background policies and changing the way that we implement that here at HANO.”

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You can follow news and updates from David T. Baker on Twitter at @Tadfly. This article originally published in the May 27, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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