We like to think life sentences only go to the worst of the worst, the criminals whose deeds were so heinous they stopped just short of deserving the death penalty.
According to state representative Harold Dutton, that's not the case. The Houston Democrat and member of the House Committee on Corrections believes that every Texas felon gets a life sentence, no matter how long their official sentence may be.
The latest example of that sad truth comes through in the story of one of his constituents.
A few weeks ago, this man's move-in to a new apartment was going well. He'd had his utilities changed and was all set to go when, the very day of the move-in, he was told to hit the road. He'd flunked his background check; he was a convicted violent felon.
And it didn't matter that the man was 80 and the conviction was for a crime that took place 50 years ago. That Mad Men-era act of madness, for which he served a long prison sentence, is still dogging this fellow wherever he goes.
"It's a 50 year-old felony and this is an 80-year-old man," Dutton tells Hair Balls. "What, are they worried he's gonna be throwing wild parties?"
Dutton says he pled the man's case all the way up to the president of the Cleveland, Ohio-based company that owns the complex. "The president told me a rule was a rule, and it didn't matter how old the man or the crime was," Dutton says.
Dutton thinks a little logic could go a long way in such cases. Many of these apartment complexes get tax breaks from the government, and yet they are still free to discriminate against ex-felons. Grits for Breakfast thinks that should change, pronto:
The House Corrections Committee heard related testimony that the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs does not prevent discrimination against felons by entities receiving affordable housing tax credits, and doesn't even track the issue. All their programs are strictly income based, said Kate Moore from TDHCA.
What's more, there are 400 local public housing authorities with no uniform standards or screening for criminal backgrounds among them. Nationally, said Moore, one in five ex-inmates becomes homeless at some point following their release, often crashing with friends and family.
Committee members questioned whether tax-credit recipients could/should be required by agency rule or statute to rent to ex-offenders, and I wouldn't be surprised to see legislation along those lines filed in the 82nd session.
Dutton doesn't know if he would go that far. He would like to see apartment owners disclose in their application for tax relief whether or not they will accept ex-felons as tenants.
"I would just like to know why or why not," says Dutton. "I don't think we need to create a blanket rule the other way" -- to compel complexes that accept government money to accept felons -- "because there could be valid reasons why they don't. I don't want to create the same situation in the opposite direction."
Still, Dutton is very sympathetic to the plight of the freshly-released convicted felon. "It's interesting to me how society seems to tell felons that they are not entitled to a place to live or a job, but we want them to get their lives back together. What are the two things you need to get your life back together? A job and a home."
He says he has even seen cases where people who have completed deferred adjudication have been denied a lease. Dutton says that those who have completed deferred adjudication are not even supposed to have a record, much less be turned down for a lease.
"What's next?" Dutton asks. "Are they gonna stop allowing felons to buy houses?"
Possibly. There's also a chance we could enact a law forbidding them from being buried in cemeteries with the dwindling number of Texans who managed to exit this vale of tears without a felony conviction.
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