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March 2, 2020
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Inside the Statehouse: Experts say 'ban the box bill' could improve eviction rate and help with homelessness

The affordable housing crisis is difficult for everyone -- but it's especially hard on those with criminal histories, since finding a place to rent can sometimes feel next to impossible. Housing experts say Idahoans with criminal convictions are facing eviction crises at alarming rates.

But the Fair Chance Employment Act, Senate Bill 1318, could potentially change that.

Also called the "ban the box bill," it's legislation that would prohibit employers from asking about criminal records until the applicant is given an interview or conditional offer of employment.

At Monday's public Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, 17 people testified in favor of S.B. 1318, and just one person against. That person was Fred Birnbaum of Idaho Freedom Foundation, who expressed the foundation's concerns that the bill would bring potential crime into the workplace.

"Why do you commit crime in the first place?" said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge (R-Huston). "And then you come back and want individual businesses to make a choice to help you."

Despite expressing concerns, Lodge ultimately voted to endorse the bill. The decision was unanimous among lawmakers on the committee.

"The cards are really stacked against people when they exit the criminal justice system," said Ali Rabe, executive director, Jesse Tree of Idaho. "And it got unanimous support, so that's really exciting!"

Housing and homelessness stakeholders are some of the foremost supporters of this bill. Rabe runs a local nonprofit that helps people who are in danger of being evicted to stay in their homes.

"We've talked to 826 households over the last several months, and 289 of those households -- so about 35 percent -- are formerly incarcerated, and they're being evicted due to employment related issues," said Rabe.

If they are evicted, that often makes their reputations even worse to potential landlords.

"When somebody has not only an incarceration record, but an eviction record, the cards are double-stacked against them when they're applying for housing," said Rabe. "In this market, there's so much demand for housing, people [with prior criminal convictions] are not really likely to get housing," said Rabe.

So, she says, if this bill is signed into law --

"That will allow them to pay their bills on time, stay in housing, and it will reduce eviction and homelessness in our community," said Rabe.

S.B. 1318 now heads to the full Senate. 6 On Your Side will keep you updated.

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Oakland, California, Bans Criminal Background Checks on Renters

California's affordable housing nightmare is well known: More than 40% of residents are now classified as housing cost-burdened, the highest proportion of any state, reports USA News.

In many cities in the San Francisco Bay Area, the nation's tightest housing market, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment now exceeds $2,500, a figure that contributes to a growing homelessness problem, exacerbates gentrification and pinches ostensibly middle-class professionals like teachers and police officers as well as those even higher up the income ladder.

For one demographic the crisis is amplified. "I was born and raised in Oakland," Lee "Taqwaa" Bonner, a former felon turned advocate, said at a recent news conference. "I am employed in Oakland. However, I cannot live in Oakland based solely on my criminal record, which happened 30 years ago." Excluded from the rental market, Bonner has often resorted to living in his car. Others have fared worse, spiraling into permanent homelessness, drug addiction and even death.

On Feb. 4, Oakland's City Council passed a new ordinance designed as a remedy, prohibiting public and private landlords from inquiring about potential tenants' criminal histories. The new law, called the Oakland Fair Chance Housing Ordinance, is the most expansive of its kind in California and among the first for major American cities. Decades after the start of the "ban the box" movement, which aims to stop employers from discriminating against the formerly incarcerated, proponents hope it will also act as a new catalyst in the battle to secure equal opportunity for the more than 70 million Americans burdened by criminal records.

"With more and more people returning home from the criminal justice system, housing is really the most basic need that people [have] in order to get back on their feet," says Council member Nikki Fortunato Bas, a co-sponsor. "It's really going to help create more opportunity and sort of level the playing field."

For decades criminal justice experts have highlighted the rampant stigma and discrimination that stifles former prisoners as they attempt to re-enter society – a phenomenon accelerated by the recent ubiquity of online background checks, an invesitgative tool critics point out is often incomplete or seriously flawed. And while the criminal justice system disproportionately impacts black men, it's also black men who, after their release, are often excluded from jobs, apartments, public benefits, and even vocational licensing on the basis of a conviction they've already served time for. "The real punishments begin," as one African American man who spent 17 years behind bars told The Washington Post, "when we are released from prison."

In 1998, Hawaii became the first state in the United States to pass legislation aimed at easing the burden, with a "ban the box" law that restricted both public and private employers from considering a prospective employee's criminal history until after a job offer was made. Since then, 35 states and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted similar "ban the box" employment discrimination laws. (Most apply only to public employers, although 13 states and 18 cities and counties have extended the legislation to the private sector. Some laws also apply to public contractors.)

Laws aimed at easing housing discrimination have come only recently, despite an overwhelming need: In one national survey of people affected by incarceration, nearly 80% of former inmates reported being denied housing because of prior convictions. In some cases whole families were evicted because a formerly incarcerated family member returned to the home; other respondents told of being forced to settle for substandard conditions.

"All of the places that I wanted to live – that were nice and where I could raise kids told me 'no,'" one study participant from Kansas told researchers from the California-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and elsewhere. "So I ended where I am now, in a rundown four-plex that's a slum with moldy walls."

Oakland's new law has various predecessors. In 2017, Seattle passed what advocates hailed as the country's most progressive "ban the box" housing law, an ordinance that prohibited most private landlords from considering applicants' criminal histories at all. The new law was promptly challenged by the city's real estate industry, which argued that it compromised safety and violated landlords' exercise of free speech. Critics also suggested council members had the wrong target. "If the city of Seattle is serious about reforming the criminal justice system, it should focus on reforming the criminal justice system," William Shadbolt, board president of the Rental Housing Association of Washington, said at a news conference. (In November, a Washington state Supreme Court judge ruled favorably toward the law, although a federal decision remains pending.)

Other cities, including Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis, have also recently passed similar but less sweeping measures, stipulating that landlords cannot perform background checks until the end of the application process or that they can only consider more recent convictions. Two Bay Area cities, Richmond and San Francisco, have passed ordinances that apply only to affordable or municipally-subsidized housing.

But Oakland's new law, which became effective immediately, represents the state's first to apply more broadly to nearly all city rentals, allowing exceptions only for landlord-occupied units. Landlords also do not have to accept tenants on the federal lifetime sex offender list; affordable housing rentals are also permitted to exclude tenants with prior convictions related to manufacturing meth. Proponents argue the new law will help reduce recidivism and ease the area's homelessness crisis, as well as set off a new wave of municipal protections: Nearby Berkeley is expected to vote on a similar measure within weeks.

"Those of us who worked on this legislation are hoping that this is sort of the next frontier of this particular movement," says Bas, who previously worked on various "ban the box" employment policies.

Yet even supporters concede that the legislation amounts to a kind of Band-Aid for a far larger problem. America's structural racism continues to disadvantage people of color in virtually every segment of society, with the very need for "ban the box" laws serving as further evidence of the rampant overcriminalization and segregation of black men, says Andre Perry, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. In some cases the laws can even prove counterproductive, as employers or landlords simply find other, more generalized ways to discriminate against former prisoners and people of color, like excluding applicants with long gaps in their resumes or names that people associate with African Americans, he adds.

"I'm for banning the box, but it's insufficient as a tool when you're dealing with disrcimination," he says, where the real change needed is an adjustment in the underlying culture. "And that requires leadership. It requires investment in black communities. It requires hiring people."

Bas agrees. But with an already overcrowded local shelter system and increasing numbers of formerly incarcerated residents returning to a city where they can't find housing, Oakland is already facing an urgent crisis. "And if we don't address that," she says, "people's lives will be lost."

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Without data protection & privacy laws, Internet can be misused

The ministry of information technology and telecommunication has published a deeply misguided notification announcing new rules to “protect” citizens against “online harm”. The rules are an egregious violation of fundamental human rights, including freedom of speech and the right to the Internet. For a government that has made much show of its digital mindset and cashed in on highly publicised initiatives for a “Digital Pakistan”, this move is in direct violation of all it claims to stand for.

Considering how backward the country otherwise is vis-a-vis the fourth industrial revolution, Pakistan has been remarkably adept at harnessing digital technologies for surveillance and psychological warfare. In previous op-eds, I have discussed the systematic use of human and bot-run accounts on social media for surveillance and harassment, as well as the exploitation — often by the state — of data footprints users leave online.


The citizen “protection” rules are the most recent in a long chain of events that illustrate how the state is expanding its surveillance apparatus. The inception of Pakistan’s e-surveillance programme can be traced back to the evolution of Nadra into a national registry and centralised database of all citizens.

Under the pretence of promoting security and access to services, Nadra has relentlessly crept deeper into our lives. The CNIC number is now linked to nearly everything we do, from banking services and purchasing activity, to SIM cards and travel, providing the state a holistic view of our lives.

The launch of the FBR-Nadra portal last year was a reminder that the state has no qualms in using the data it has collected as an intimidation tactic. To log into the portal, I first had to pay an application fee to access my own data. In addition to several other data points, the portal displays an account of my travel history and mobile phone billing history. My profile also states that “additional information is being collected”. There is no guidance on what this information is, why it must be collected, and how I can control my data.

This data has been collected without our informed consent. “Informed” is the operative word as, even when we agree to share our data, there is no way of knowing who it will eventually be shared with and what use it will be put to. Moreover, the word “consent” loses its meaning where non-compliance means exclusion from critical services. The portal is a failure as a solution to Pakistan’s tax collection problems. Its only achievement so far is as a shock-and-awe tactic instilling fear in a citizenry that has no right to privacy.

The Safe Cities project is an extension of this massive surveillance infrastructure. The Nadra website boasts the installation of “intelligent video surveillance” through which “the population and their activities are monitored”. The Safe Cities video footage integrates with Nadra’s database, allowing for facial recognition. The HEC is now implementing a version of this on campuses all over the country, through the Smart and Safe Campus projects.

The use of biometrics is also expanding, with fingerprints collection and facial and iris recognition technologies. In addition to their use by Nadra, financial inclusion and social protection programmes including BISP make use of biometrics for verification of beneficiaries. While there is a case to be made for the use of identification technologies to enable citizens to access social services, this must go hand-in-hand with strong legal frameworks for data protection and privacy.

The recent case of BISP fraud and the removal of “undeserving beneficiaries” from the database will serve as yet another justification for collecting more and more data. Citizens will continue to be treated with suspicion and reduced to data points, as they give up their right to privacy in attempts to prove their innocence and worthiness to avail basic rights.

For the vulnerable and poor who may have more immediate needs, many believe that privacy is not a concern; it is thought to be a “first world problem”. Research conducted by CGAP in India and Kenya has shown that the poor are particularly vulnerable to “lax data policies” and, contrary to popular belief, value their privacy and are willing to pay a premium to preserve it.

The citizen protection rules also show that the government is continuing on the misguided path of data localisation — demanding that social media companies store Pakistani users’ data in servers located in-country. Considering Pakistan’s track record with data protection and cybersecurity, this is alarming. In addition to surveillance and misuse of data by the state, reported data breaches such as the NSA accessing Nadra records are enough to believe that Pakistani authorities cannot be trusted with our data.

Data protection and privacy laws must be a cornerstone of the Digital Pakistan policy. Without a strong regulatory framework and legal protection, Pakistan’s citizens are, at best, excluded from the benefits of the Internet and, at worst, at serious risk of violation of their fundamental rights.

The Digital Pakistan initiative, launched by Prime Minister Imran Khan amidst much pomp and show, recognises the Internet as “a fundamental right” and promises “to ensure every Pakistani has access to the Internet”. However, moves such as the citizen protection rules make the initiative appear as a publicity campaign rather than a genuine attempt to harness the democratising power of the Internet for the good of the Pakistani people.

The protagonist of the Digital Pakistan initiative, Ms Tania Aidrus, with her experience at leading technology institutions, should be advising IT policymakers against such misguided policy changes. It is hoped she will help develop a more strategic and meaningful vision of how digitisation can empower the people of Pakistan rather than be used as a weapon against them.

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