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Savannah Police Suspend Its Discriminatory ‘Crime Free Housing Program’

Let’s say there’s a 65-year-old man looking for an apartment to rent. Do you think the fact that he was convicted of three misdemeanors as a teenager is relevant to whether he’ll be a good tenant? Is it relevant that a young parent has a warrant out for her arrest because she missed a court date?  Is it relevant that her partner completed probation on a drug-related offense nine years ago? And what about the fact that, because of discrimination in the criminal justice system, each of these people is disproportionately likely to be a person of color?

In Savannah, Georgia, police policy barred all three of these people from securing housing in one of the many large apartment complexes that it certifies as “Crime Free.” Police training materials strongly suggested that property managers and landlords of these complexes secure a crime-free logo to put in their advertising, so that they’d appeal to “good” tenants. Police also incentivized participation in the program by directly providing managers of certified properties with information about calls for service on their properties as well as helping with evictions.

Participating landlords had to attend a training at which the police instructed them on, among other things, how to keep crime out of their properties by rejecting applicants with a criminal history. The police website lists 20 participating apartment complexes, some containing hundreds of apartments, though a police department official has suggested that the number could be as high as 39. Regardless, it’s clear that complexes participating in the Crime Free Housing Program make up a significant share of all affordable rental apartments in Savannah.

These criminal history exclusions were complete and final. Police had been telling landlords to bar people based on their records alone, with no consideration of their particular circumstances or stories and without regard to evidence of rehabilitation. The ban also extended to, among others, anyone who has been convicted of a nonviolent felony — like a drug possession felony — in the last 10 years and anyone who has been convicted of any misdemeanor — like driving with a suspended license — in the last five years.

Savannah’s screening policy was overbroad, discriminatory, and illegal. Along with the ACLU of Georgia, Georgia Legal Services Program, and the Savannah-Chatham County Fair Housing Council, we sent the police chief a letter demanding that the police immediately stop requiring landlords to perform criminal history screening. In response to our letter, the city of Savannah has announced a suspension of the Crime-Free Housing Program while it reviews the policy.

That makes good sense. There’s simply no evidence that these broad-based exclusions actually render housing safer. In fact, available research shows that people who engaged in criminal conduct  more than six years ago are about as likely to commit crime in the future as people with no record at all. Beyond that, there’s just no reason to continue punishing people when they’ve already served their time, including for behavior decades in the past.

There’s plenty of evidence, though, that barring people from housing based on criminal history disproportionately excludes people of color. Nationwide, Black people are arrested at a rate more than double their proportion of the general population and imprisoned at a rate about three times higher than their proportion of the general population. Black men are imprisoned at a rate almost six times greater than for white men, and for Hispanic men, the rate is nearly twice that for non-Hispanic white men.  Read More