|Vol. 4, No. 13 December 2000|
Helping Low-Income Mothers
with Criminal Records Achieve Self-Sufficiency
Women are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S.
prison population. In 1999 about
53,600 state and federal prisoners were mothers with children below age 18,
compared with 29,500 in 1991. Incarcerated
women with minor children comprise the majority of women in prison (65 percent
in federal prisons and 59 percent in state prisons). Most women in prison have low incomes, and approximately 10
percent of mothers in state prisons report having a child in foster care (Mumola,
August 2000). These numbers do not
reflect, however, low-income mothers with criminal records who are serving
alternative sentences or who are on probation or parole.
Low-income mothers with criminal records face
numerous challenges to self-sufficiency. They
often have little work experience and low levels of education that hinder their
ability to attain higher-paying jobs with benefits.
Most employers are cautious about hiring ex-offenders and often associate
a criminal background with an increased chance for theft, physical endangerment,
substance abuse, and other negative behaviors.
Some states bar criminal offenders from certain occupations involving
vulnerable populations, such as child care, elder care, and health care.
Physical and mental health problems, often combined with substance abuse
and a history of domestic violence, also are barriers confronting many
low-income mothers with criminal records.
Some low-income mothers with criminal records also
are denied access to public benefits, such as welfare cash assistance, food
stamps, and federal housing assistance, that may be key to their transition to
self-sufficiency. Restrictions on
these public benefits largely apply to individuals with drug-related criminal histories.
However, drug-related offenses comprise the majority of crimes committed
by women with criminal records and, therefore, a significant number of them will
likely face challenges in accessing such benefits.
mothers who are ex-offenders also often face barriers in maintaining parental
rights and reuniting with their children once they are released from prison or
residential substance abuse treatment. These
mothers often have had to place their children with relatives or foster parents
during their absence. Under the
federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, states face increased pressure
to terminate the parental rights of parents with children placed in foster care,
posing special challenges for low-income mothers with criminal records and/or
states want to focus on serving low-income mothers with criminal records?
Helping low-income mothers with criminal records
secure jobs and obtain needed employment supports can reduce financial and
non-financial burdens on government, employers, and society.
States can devise strategies now for moving
low-income women who are ex-offenders into steady employment, as well as for
meeting their basic needs should they reach the TANF time limit and still need
assistance. In the 28 states that chose to maintain the 60-month
federal lifetime limit on TANF, families will begin to reach the time limit as
early as October 2001. However, in
states that opted to apply shorter time limits, families have already reached
the limits in 18 states, and families in three additional states will reach them
during the next year (Schott, June 21, 2000).
In addition to their criminal record, low-income mothers who are
ex-offenders often experience domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health,
or other problems that may prolong their receipt of TANF and increase their risk
of reaching the time limit. Nearly
80 percent of incarcerated men and women—about 1.4 million people—are
seriously involved with drug and alcohol abuse and the crimes associated with it
(Belenko, January 1998). Substance
abuse also often interferes with an ex-offender’s ability to reintegrate back
into society successfully. For
example, in California, four out of five former inmates returned to prison for
technical violations of their parole, such as failing a drug test, rather than
for committing new crimes.
How can states
encourage employers to hire ex-offenders?
States can use intermediary services, employer
education strategies, and business incentives to encourage the hiring of
ex-offenders. Linking employers
with intermediary organizations that provide education and training and
community work experience for low-income mothers with criminal records can be a
useful strategy. Intermediary
providers that work with ex-offenders can assist in job placement by coaching
the ex-offender on how to address her criminal record in a job interview,
performing preliminary background checks, and conducting random drug tests.
Often, providers award participants with certificates of “completion”
or “good conduct” that can also serve as a mark of achievement to employers.
In addition, intermediary providers can pursue relationships with
employers who are more likely to hire ex-offenders, such as those in the
construction, food service, and manufacturing sectors.
States can also educate employers about the supports
and workplace flexibility that may be needed to ease an ex-offender’s
transition to work. For example,
low-income mothers with criminal records may need to leave the workplace to
attend court hearings, appointments with a parole officer, or substance abuse
treatment. Employers can help by
allowing some flexibility in the employee’s work schedule to keep such
States can inform employers about federal programs
designed to encourage employers to hire ex-offenders and other “at-risk”
populations. For example, the Work
Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), a tax credit available through the U.S.
Department of Labor (DOL), encourages private employers to hire from eight
targeted groups of job seekers, including ex-felons. The maximum credit available is $2,400 per eligible new
addition, employers may claim the Welfare-to-Work Tax Credit for welfare
recipients who have received TANF for at least 18 consecutive months preceding
the date of hire; members of a family that has received TANF for at least 18
months after August 5, 1997; or members of a family that is no longer eligible
for assistance after August 5, 1997, because of federal or state time limits.
The maximum credit available is $8,500 if the employee is retained for
two years. If employees qualify for both WOTC and the Welfare-to-Work Tax
Credit, employers may claim only one of the tax credits.
For more information, visit http://www.sba.gov/welfare/irs99-51.html.
Finally, the federal bonding program, also sponsored
by DOL and administered at the state workforce agency level, seeks to alleviate
employer concerns that at-risk job applicants would be untrustworthy workers. It
allows employers to purchase fidelity bonds to protect them against the loss of
money or property because of employee dishonesty. The bond is free, is usually valued at $5,000, and insures
the employer for any type of loss caused by theft, forgery, larceny, or
embezzlement. For more information, visit http://wtw.doleta.gov/documents/fedbonding.htm.
How do eligibility restrictions on certain public
benefits affect a state’s ability to meet the basic needs of some low-income
mothers with criminal records? Individuals committing certain crimes are prohibited from some public
benefit programs that may be critical to their transition to self-sufficiency.
These programs include TANF, the Food Stamp program, Medicaid, and
Stamps, and Medicaid.
reform law permanently bars any individual with a drug-related felony conviction
from receiving federal TANF assistance and food stamps during their lifetime,
unless a state opts out of the provision. As of January 2000, approximately 28 states reported they
deny at least some TANF-funded benefits to convicted drug felons.
For details on these states, visit http://www.welfareinfo.org/HardtoServe.htm.
Some of these states provide exceptions to the ban for certain types of
drug felonies or for individuals who participate in drug treatment programs.
The ban only applies to conduct that occurred after August 22, 1996.
The federal welfare law also stipulates that states
cannot provide public assistance, Medicaid, and food stamps to those who are
“violating a condition of probation or parole.” However, the law does not address what constitutes a parole
or probation violation that would trigger the benefit ban or define when the
period of ineligibility begins and ends. Therefore,
states must clarify when an individual would be ineligible for these benefits
because of violating a condition of probation or parole.
In New York, for example, a client is not restricted from receiving
benefits until a warrant is outstanding or a court administrative hearing
determines the individual has violated the terms of his or her probation or
parole. New York law also specifies
that the ban ends as soon as the violator returns to compliance (Legal Action
Public housing law requires public housing authorities (PHAs) and other providers of
Section 8 and other federally assisted housing to deny housing to certain
individuals. Those who are evicted
from federally assisted housing because of drug-related criminal activity may
not receive such housing assistance for three years. In addition, household members abusing alcohol in a way that
jeopardizes another resident’s health or safety, or household members using
illegal drugs, are ineligible for housing assistance. Housing providers may choose to grant these individuals
assistance if they can demonstrate they have been rehabilitated in one of three
ways: through participation in a supervised substance abuse treatment program,
through completion of a supervised substance abuse treatment program, or through
successful rehabilitation in some other manner.
Public housing law also allows housing providers to deny housing assistance in certain other
cases of criminal activity. For
more information, contact the Legal Action Center at 212/243-1313.
benefit restrictions, how can states promote ex-offenders’ self-sufficiency
directly or in partnership with other public or private resources? Restrictions on eligibility for certain public programs may
limit a state’s ability to support low-income mothers who are ex-offenders,
particularly those who have drug-related convictions. Ex-offenders returning to the labor market typically start
out in low-wage jobs without health care and other benefits. To retain employment, these mothers may need transitional
work supports, such as temporary cash assistance, Medicaid, and food stamps.
Obtaining safe and affordable housing also is a major obstacle to
self-sufficiency for many of these women.
States may want to think about serving low-income
mothers with criminal records in terms of identifying how current policy might
be changed as well as determining what public sources can be leveraged to serve
ex-offenders absent any policy changes. For
example, states may want to assess how their initial TANF policy choices are
affecting low-income mothers with criminal records and drug addictions, and
determine how they can be changed to promote ex-offenders’ movement toward
self-sufficiency. Such an
assessment is particularly applicable to the drug felon provision under PRWORA.
In addition, state and local welfare, workforce, and corrections agencies
can work with PHAs to craft housing policies that do not exacerbate housing
barriers for low-income mothers with criminal records.
have other options for funding cash assistance and support services for poor
mothers ineligible for TANF-funded and other benefits because of their criminal
records. For example, state
maintenance-of-effort (MOE) funds, or other state-only funds can be used to
provide cash, food, health care, and housing assistance to individuals outside
of the TANF program. Funds spent
outside of TANF are not subject to TANF time limits and work requirements, and
this may benefit states needing more time to help these families get back on
track. Substance abuse treatment
services can be paid for with MOE, Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment
block grant, Social Services Block Grant, and Medicaid funds.
The Community Development Block Grant can be used for housing, nutrition,
emergency, and health services.
addition to making policy changes and identifying public resources outside of
the TANF program, states can engage foundations and community and faith-based
organizations in serving low-income mothers with criminal records.
These private and nonprofit entities can fund as well as help coordinate
services for ex-offenders who must navigate a fragmented system of benefits and
balance multiple, sometimes conflicting, program requirements.
For example, a low-income mother may be required to work 30 hours per
week under TANF, but also required to attend substance abuse treatment and
parenting classes as part of her involvement with the child welfare system or as
a condition of her parole. Organizations
serving as liaisons between systems are in a unique position to identify program
requirement conflicts as well as suggest potential adjustments in requirements
to state agency administrators. Welfare
agencies can also engage state and local departments of labor, child welfare,
corrections, and substance abuse and mental health to determine how to
effectively provide employment services and supports to this population.
How can states help mothers reunite with their
children prior to and following their release from prison? Low-income mothers who serve prison sentences
and/or enter residential substance abuse treatment face special challenges with
regard to the care of their children and the maintenance of their parental
rights. The children of mothers in
such circumstances are typically placed with relatives or foster parents during
the mother’s absence. If the
state files a dependency and neglect action and the child enters the child
welfare system, it is critical that incarcerated mothers or mothers in
residential treatment stay in contact with the professionals working on their
child’s case and appear at hearings about their child in person or by
telephone. Failure to do so may
result in the loss of parental rights and child custody. Key issues state and local agencies should emphasize with
women inmates include custody issues, how to cooperate with the department of
social services, and the importance of meeting child support obligations to the
state or temporary care providers during their incarceration. Child support offices can always review and modify child
support orders using the state’s child support guidelines so they better
reflect an individual’s ability to pay. Incarceration
is generally not viewed as grounds for an automatic modification, so
incarcerated parents must file a request for a review and modification.
Requests are considered by the child support agency and based on agency
policy and court decisions in that jurisdiction, they may be denied if
incarceration is considered “voluntary unemployment.”
For more information, see the Welfare Information Network (WIN) Issue
Note “Support Services for Incarcerated and Released Non-custodial
Parents,” at http://www.welfareinfo.org/heidijune2.htm.
time limits on the termination of parental rights under the federal Adoption and
Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 increase the need for absent mothers who become
involved with the child welfare system to work closely with the state to
maintain custody of their children. The
timelines in ASFA require the child welfare system and courts to make rapid
decisions regarding permanency for children placed in foster care.
Permanency hearings, where a court determines where and with whom the
child will live, occur within 12 months after the date the child entered foster
care. In cases where the court
determines that reasonable efforts to reunite the child with the family are not
required—ASFA outlines the circumstances under which this can occur—then a
permanency hearing must be held within 30 days of that finding.
States can help low-income mothers retain custody by linking them with
community-based organizations that can serve as a liaison between the absent
mother, child welfare agency, and courts and improve coordination of the
In 1997 the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of
Justice Statistics surveyed inmates in state and federal correctional facilities
and correlated statistics specifically about inmates who were parents. A majority of women in prison were mothers with at least one
minor child (65 percent among state female prisoners and 59 percent among
federal female prisoners). Incarcerated
mothers also tended to be poor, with a majority of mothers in both state prisons
(70 percent) and federal prisons (66 percent) reporting incomes below $1,000 in
the month prior to arrest. Three-fourths
of the crimes committed by mothers in federal prisons were drug-related, with
one in three reporting they committed their crime to get drugs or money for
drugs. These mothers also have low
levels of education, with a majority of parents in both state prisons (70
percent) and federal prisons (55 percent) reporting no high school diploma.
Mothers in state prisons most often identified their child’s
grandparent (53 percent) or other relatives (26 percent) as the child’s
current caregiver; 10 percent reported their children were in foster care (Mumola,
The Colorado Work and Family Center, a collaborative
effort between the Colorado Division of Child Support Enforcement and Colorado
Department of Corrections, provides incarcerated and paroled obligors assistance
with employment, child support, and family reunification.
Although the program serves primarily noncustodial fathers, its findings
may help inform the implementation of other programs serving ex-offenders who
are parents. Early outcome data
shows that of the participants referred to employers, between 43 percent and 47
percent of them obtained employment. The
jobs paid an average of $9 per hour and about half of them provided benefits.
Followup interviews revealed most participants appreciated the
program’s services but had financial obligations exceeding their earnings.
Nearly 40 percent of participants requested assistance in obtaining
affordable housing. The Center for
Policy Research is conducting a formal program evaluation, measuring such
outcomes as client employment, child support payment, contact with children, and
returns to prison. For more
information, see WIN’s Expanded Case
Study “Designing Programs for Incarcerated and Paroled Obligors,” at http://www.welfareinfo.org/expandedcasestudy.htm;
or contact Jessica Pearson of the Center for Policy Research at 303/837-1555.
Last spring, the U.S. Departments of Justice, Labor, and Health and Human Services launched a Reentry Partnerships Initiative to develop reentry plans for ex-offenders and the communities to which they are returning. Local departments of human services, labor, and corrections in eight pilot sites are implementing services and interventions for ex-offenders, including using community corrections officers to supervise ex-offender behavior, hiring case managers to coordinate support services, providing substance abuse testing and treatment, and providing employment and training programs. The pilot sites are in Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, South Carolina, Vermont, and Washington. The University of Maryland is conducting a process evaluation of the sites, and initial findings on program models and lessons learned are expected in spring 2001. For more information, visit the Reentry Partnerships Initiative’s web site at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/reentry/whats_new.htm.
The Colorado Division of Child Support Enforcement (CSE)
and Colorado Department of Corrections collaborated to train prison staff on
issues affecting, and services available for, incarcerated parents.
The prison staff included case managers who are responsible for ensuring
basic inmate compliance with programs leading to release, and program
coordinators who work with inmates on reintegration issues, such as parenting,
victim impact, and basic life skills. The
one-day training program covered such topics as child support, child custody and
visitation, welfare reform, domestic violence, child welfare, and available
statewide resources. Staff
conducting the training included representatives from CSE, a family law
attorney, TANF and child protection administrators, and a coordinator of a
domestic violence batterer treatment program.
For more information, see WIN’s Expanded
Case Study “Designing Programs for Incarcerated and Paroled Obligors,”
Contact: Jessica Pearson, Center for Policy Research, 303/837-1555.
The Safer Foundation has provided ex-offenders with
assistance in finding jobs since 1972. Clients
are referred through a parole or probation officer, a community correctional
center for inmates being released from higher security prisons, and
self-referral. The foundation
offers a one-week job readiness class, followed by immediate job placement and
retention assistance. Women
ex-offenders with little or no work experience can also receive up to 30 days of
workplace culture training. Once
the client is placed in a job, he or she meets with an employment specialist to
discuss any workplace challenges the client is experiencing.
Postemployment services can include case management and job retention and
advancement services for a year or more. Other
family members are often included in the postemployment process to help identify
barriers the ex-offender is facing and to encourage the ex-offender to stick
with the job. The foundation also
maintains a database for its employment specialists to use in tracking client
progress and identifying critical points of intervention when a client may be
tempted to leave the job. Contact:
Ron Tonn, associate vice president, Safer Foundation, 312/922-2200.
is just beginning to target current, former, and potential TANF recipients
who are incarcerated by identifying their needs while they are in prison and
encouraging them to participate in the Indiana Manpower Placement and
Comprehensive Training Program (IMPACT) once released.
Clients are assessed and referred to employment assistance, basic
education and literacy classes, substance abuse and mental health treatment,
housing, and domestic violence services. Contact:
Becky Reed, Blue River Services, 812/278-8392.
The New York Office of Temporary and Disability
Assistance allocated $5 million in TANF funds to programs providing substance
abuse treatment, family reunification and parenting skills, and employment
assistance to ex-offenders with TANF-eligible children.
Seven programs, four in New York City, received funds effective July 1,
2000, to offer outpatient substance abuse treatment, job development, vocational
rehabilitation, family counseling, and domestic violence services.
For example, the Women’s Prison
Association & Home, Inc., in
Manhattan and Brooklyn provides comprehensive case management services to
address the overlapping relationships women with criminal records have with the
public assistance, housing, child welfare, health, and criminal justice systems.
Some participants will receive job readiness and job placement assistance
through the Center for Employment Opportunities. Yonkers General
Hospital provides pre-discharge substance abuse treatment planning for the
Women’s Unit at the Westchester County Jail and 12 months of follow-up
services after the inmates’ release. The
state plans to fund five additional projects early next year.
Contact: Pam Derrick, New York State Division of Probation and
Correctional Alternatives, 518/485-2398.
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York’s
only maximum-security prison for women, conducts in-house parenting classes to
help mothers maintain strong bonds with their children. At the prison’s Children’s Center, the inmates teach one
another about how to encourage their children’s success in school and how to
talk to their children about their mothers’ incarceration. Another parenting program, “Parenting through Film,”
promotes responsible parenting through film images of mothers as role models. The
prison also assists mothers with custody and family law issues, as well as
operates the Children of Bedford Fund, which pays tuition and related costs for
inmates’ children to attend private schools and colleges.
Contact: Toni Campoamor, executive director, Children’s Center,
Project RIO (Reintegration of Offenders)
is a partnership among the Texas Workforce Commission, Texas Department of
Criminal Justice, and Texas Youth Commission to reduce recidivism and
unemployment among ex-offenders by providing prerelease and postrelease
workforce skills training, education, vocational skills training, and job
placement assistance. RIO staff are
located in career centers throughout the Texas Workforce Network, the state’s
one-stop career center system. Program
evaluation findings indicate participants in Project RIO experienced a
23-percent recidivism rate, compared with 38 percent among a comparable group of
non-RIO ex-offenders. The project
is funded using state general revenue dollars.
Contact: Burt Ellison, director, Project RIO, Texas Workforce Commission,
Center for Community Alternatives, Marcia Weissman,
Center for Employment Opportunities, Mindy Tarlow,
212/422-4850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Legal Action Center, Debbie Mukamal, 212/243-1313,
ext. 21, or email@example.com.
Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., LaDonna Pavetti,
202/484-4697 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peter Young Housing Industries and Treatment, Father
Peter Young, 518/465-8034 or email@example.com
U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Welfare to Work, Mindy Feldbaum, 202/219-0181 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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To order, call 212/243-1313.
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the Community: Political, Economic, and Social Consequences.”Sentencing
and Corrections: Research in Brief. Washington,
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to Work Partnership and Legal Action Center.
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Histories: An Overlooked Labor Pool in a Tight Market.
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author would like to thank Debbie Mukamal, Legal Action Center, and Jessica
Pearson, Center for Policy Research, for lending their valuable time, insights,
and suggestions to this paper.
The Welfare Information Network is supported by grants from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Department of Labor.
Welfare Information Network ~ Barry L. Van Lare, Executive Director ~ Web Site: www.welfareinfo.org