Released, Now What: The Intersection of Justice Reform and Housing in Response to COVID-19

For most, the release from jail is a disorienting moment. While release symbolizes freedom, this freedom quickly becomes overwhelming for those who have to navigate their reentry delicately to achieve successful reintegration into the community.

Reintegration is contingent upon an individual’s ability to secure safe and stable housing. Housing establishes the stability necessary for individuals to treat mental and physical health conditions, secure employment, and reconnect with positive support systems to prevent recidivism. But, this pathway from jail to housing is often riddled with structural barriers.

Due to weakened bonds with family and friends and higher rates of chronic mental and physical health issues that are often not treated or exacerbated during incarceration, it becomes difficult for returning citizens to secure housing. The lack of access to the internet and struggles in obtaining state-issued identification, which are critical in the quest for housing and employment, also serve as yet another roadblock.

Given the current climate of the housing market, individuals with incarceration histories are left competing for the same, very limited, pool of resources with those who do not have previous justice involvement. Probation/parole restrictions may also limit where returning citizens are able to live. Housing application fees, security deposits and rent all pose financial challenges for individuals without banking accounts or savings. This leaves individuals leaving local jails particularly vulnerable to becoming homeless at a rate almost 10 times greater than the general public, with even higher rates if they are women and people of color, due to structural and institutional racism.

Individuals who face multiple barriers and are not able to meet their basic needs are more likely to recidivate or violate release conditions. This endless cycle between incarceration and precarious housing/homelessness is increasingly difficult to break the longer an individual is homeless and the more times that they are incarcerated.

What does jail release look like during COVID-19?

Now, returning citizens are not only faced with the complicated, daunting, and emotionally taxing task of navigating reentry, but also the added pressure of navigating reentry during a pandemic and economic downturn.

With the overcrowding of America’s jails, incarcerated people are disproportionately at risk for chronic health conditions that make them vulnerable to viral infections like the novel coronavirus. Incarcerated Black and Latinx populations, make up 37.7% and 31.6% of incarcerated population, despite only making up 13.4% and 18.3% of the overall U.S. population given that they face disproportionately high rates of arrest and incarceration,  are particularly at risk of infection. Due to current conditions in jails – ideal places for viruses like the novel coronavirus to thrive – the virus has spread very quickly.

In response to the vulnerability of incarcerated people, there has been growing pressure from the local, state, and federal level to release individuals who are medically vulnerable, elderly, non-violent offenders, and/or approaching the end of their sentence. Local jurisdictions have taken the lead to ease overcrowding. For example, in Duval County the jail population has dropped by approximately 16% over the past month, as those who were nearing the end of their misdemeanor sentences were released.

Securing housing, one of the biggest challenges in reentry, has a new sense of urgency amidst city and state-wide orders to stay at home.

How Are Cities Responding?

As more people are released from jails across the country, cities are leading the cause to address the need for reentry plans that include stable housing.

As part of their COVID-19 response, the city of San Francisco is providing intensive supportive housing for individuals returning from jail. Referred to by the Superior Court of San Francisco to the San Francisco Pretrial Diversion program, individuals will be provided housing with on-site case management, wellness activities, support groups, virtual classes and workshops structured to help individuals move toward permanent housing placement. In Oakland, those being released from jails are being housed in government paid hotel rooms to avoid increased populations in homeless encampments, where the virus can spread with ease. Similarly, cities like Denver and New Orleans are thinking critically about ways to quickly come together with local partners to house people, including those leaving their local jails.

What Steps Should Cities Take Next?

As cities continue to grapple with the growing demands of providing essential services to residents, they can strategically think about the development of reentry plans that include interventions to shelter returning citizens that do not have housing options available to them upon release.

Cities can collaborate with local non-profits that can provide short-term shelter and wraparound services to these individuals during this crisis. Along with providing short-term shelter and wraparound services, cities can work with community-based organizations to create a pathway for returning citizens to secure permanent affordable housing, a key component to prevent recidivism, either during or after COVID-19.  In addition, collaborations with the private industries, including hotels, can result in innovation around the prevention of homelessness.

Cities can utilize CARES Act funding to assist with creating both short and long-term solutions to provide safe housing for returning citizens. Passed by Congress and the President, the CARES Act made $4 billion available in homelessness assistance grants. This funding can be used to provide housing navigation services, rental assistance, financial assistance (utilities payment, rental application fees and security and utility deposits) and services such as housing search and placement, tenant legal services and housing stability case management.

Cities can further support returning citizens by ensuring fair enforcement of the Fair Housing Act.  Although returning citizens are not a protected class of the Fair Housing Act, in 2016 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Office of General Counsel released guidance to providers of housing and real estate-related transitions on how to apply the Fair Housing Act Standards to individuals with incarceration history.

Without access to stable housing, returning citizens may be forced onto the streets or into shelters, which are often no less crowded or sanitary than local jails or prisons especially during the pandemic. By cities taking an active role in providing housing options and wraparound services for returning citizens, individuals will be able to achieve a successful reentry.



About the Authors

Lauren_Lowery_smallLauren Lowery is the Program Director for Housing & Community Development at the National League of Cities.




Kirby Gaherty is the program manager for Justice Reform and Youth Engagement in the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.



Tina Lee is a Senior Coordinator within NLC’s Center for City Solutions. She supports the Center for City Solutions and Senior Executive and Director. Additionally, her areas of research include urban innovation, mobility, and housing.