By Martin Kidston
The city’s lack of housing and the shadow that comes with a criminal past have made it difficult for felons to reintegrate into the community after release from prison – something community leaders and the Montana Department of Corrections are looking to resolve.
Statewide, roughly 9,300 people are on parole, including 1,300 in Missoula. The availability of community housing and employment are significant factors in whether a former inmate reoffends or successfully reintegrates into society, experts told City Club Missoula on Monday.
“We have returning citizens coming back into the community who need assistance to maintain sobriety, to maintain treatment, to gain housing and employment to be successful,” said Kim Lahiff, director of probation and parole for the Department of Corrections’ western Montana division. “They have felony records and that’s difficult to overcome, as is bad credit. Those two things make it difficult to find housing.”
A group of Missoula organizations and the Department of Corrections are hoping to reverse those challenges at a time when the state is taking a closer look at corrections as a whole.
The number of people incarcerated in the state’s jails and prisons has increased 67 percent over the last five years, and nearly 98 percent of all Montana prisoners will remain in-state once their sentence is complete.
In Missoula, as in other communities across the state, finding housing and employment with a criminal past can be difficult. That’s exacerbated in Missoula, where the cost of living is high and the availability of housing is low.
Eran Pehan, director of the city’s newly created housing office, said rental vacancy rates in Missoula fluctuate from 3 to 5 percent while new home construction is down, driving up prices across nearly all housing sectors.
“What we’re seeing is folks who have something on their criminal record, who have a felony status, they’re just not competitive for those units,” said Pehan. “Sometimes, it’s a credit issue. Oftentimes, it comes down solely to that background check, which provides those folks one more barrier.”
To address the issue of housing, organizations such as the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative and Missoula Partners for Reintegration have looked to other communities for ideas to emulate.
Establishing a housing liaison and a Risk Mitigation Fund have emerged as possibilities, according to Pehan. The latter represents a pot of money that serves as a safety net for landlords, which they’d receive in the event that a felon doesn’t pay rent or damages a unit.
“What we’re finding in other communities is that those pools of funding rarely get drawn on,” Pehan said. “The mere presence alone, knowing that funding is there, provides that landlord enough of an incentive to take a risk.”
Earlier this year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development also passed down new recommendations on fair housing laws. Pehan said the recommendations caution landlords to refrain from discriminating against a tenant based on his or her criminal past.
While the city of Missoula and Missoula County have already eliminated the “felony check box” on job applications, Pehan said local efforts to “ban the box” on rental applications have yet to gain momentum.
“My hope is, as communities integrate this guidance and policy shift, we might see more grassroots-type advocacy for a ‘ban-the-box’ for landlords,” Pehan said. “It’s still pretty new. We’re watching communities that have more infrastructure around these issues.”
While some have suggested a tax credit for landlords who rent to felons, Jana Staton, co-chair of Missoula Partners for Reintegration, said the concept was panned by Missoula’s legislative delegation.
Rather, she said, the delegation is eyeing the Risk Mitigation Fund as a plausible alternative.
Staton said her organization plans to play a more active role in the 2017 legislative session, where a number of bills impacting criminal justice and reintegration are on the agenda.
“The Commission on Sentencing will be bringing up a whole list of bills that are going to cut across our criminal justice system,” said Staton. “We’re going to be paying particular attention to areas of housing.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org