Logan Harris

Logan Harris
Research Associate
logan[at]humanimpact.org

Logan Harris joined Human Impact Partners in September 2014, after receiving Master’s degrees in public health and city planning from UC Berkeley. As a planner, she is primarily concerned with how urban policy can be crafted to advance racial and economic justice, and eliminate the social inequities that drive health disparities. She has a particular interest in housing affordability and access as determinants of health, and has worked at UC Berkeley researching gentrification and displacement in the Bay Area. Logan also has GIS and mapping skills, and has experience at the Contra Costa County Department of Public Health using GIS to assess population-level vulnerability to climate change and extreme heat. Prior to graduate school, she worked in evaluation and program management at a food justice non-profit based in Oakland. Her mixed methods research experience includes statistical analysis, interviews, and survey design, and she is passionate about action research as a tool for shifting institutional power and driving social change.

How “ban-the-box” policies expose deeper problems with racism in hiring

“Ban-the-box” policies are designed to eliminate some of the barriers that people leaving prison face when seeking jobs. These policies disallow employers from asking people about their criminal records during the initial phase of a job application, removing the “box” that an applicant checks to indicate whether they have a criminal conviction on their record. Although policies differ, most allow employers to request information on criminal records after the initial application stage, and are designed to help applicants get through that first round without automatic disqualification.

Ban-the-box policies are clearly meant to help formerly incarcerated people get jobs, who face significant barriers to good employment. But they are also meant to address racial inequities, since African Americans and Latinos bear the disproportionate burden of negative impacts of incarceration. However, some recent research indicates that ban the box policies may actually have unintended consequences of worsening outcomes for black applicants.

In one study, researchers submitted fictitious online applications for entry-level service jobs in New York City and New Jersey before and after those jurisdictions passed ban-the-box policies. Before the policies passed, some of these fake applicants reported criminal convictions for minor drug or property crimes. Using New Jersey birth records, the applications were randomly assigned common black names, like Jamal and Maurice, or common white names, like Kyle and Matthew, but they were otherwise indistinguishable.

Overall, the study did find that before the policies went into effect, employers were over 60% more likely to call back an applicant without a criminal record, confirming that a criminal record negatively impacted job prospects in a major way. However the racial gap in callbacks grew substantially after the policies went into place: before the policy, white applicants were 7% more likely to get called back, and after it passed they were 45% more likely than black applicants to get called back.

When they didn’t have concrete information about criminal records, it seems that employers relied more on racist stereotypes. Unexpectedly, whites with criminal records benefitted the most from the policy.

These findings are disheartening, and we’ve seen similar unintended consequences from other efforts to change the criminal justice system – for example the expansion of drug courts that have ended up disproportionately benefiting white opioid users. But fair hiring advocates have also cautioned that we should interpret these findings as a call to expand fair hiring overall, not to repeal ban-the-box policies. If we really care about impacting racial equity, we will need broader policy changes that target racism more directly.

When it comes to employment, part of the solution could be better enforcement of the fair hiring laws that are already on the books. There may also be potential in expanding blind hiring practices, which hide much more information (including applicant names) from employers in order to reduce intentional and unintentional race and gender bias. Thus far blind hiring has been focused in the tech industry, so would need to be adapted for the kinds of entry-level jobs that are accessible to many formerly incarcerated people who don’t hold college degrees. But we also need to think critically about how to explicitly support black communities and health. Later this year, HIP will be collaborating with the Los Angeles Black Workers Center on a project related to fair hiring practices and quality employment for black workers, which means that we’ll be thinking much more about these issues in the coming months.

Fair Housing for Better Health

One year after Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, galvanizing the Black Lives Matter movement, the role of housing segregation in perpetuating racial injustice is in the news. Residential segregation is one of the major mechanisms that produce racial health disparities in the United States, but there is some reason for optimism that new national policy efforts will challenge ongoing segregation.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule. This rule comes on the heels of the Supreme Court’s June decision that affirmed the legal rights of plaintiffs to challenge housing policies with racially “disparate impacts” – without being required to show that racial discrimination was intentional. A non-profit called the Inclusive Communities Project brought the suit against the state of Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, arguing that Texas was allocating too many of its federally funded tax credits for affordable housing -housing for low-income, predominantly Black residents- to developments in poor, urban neighborhoods. This decision in turn came shortly after the release of a study out of Harvard’s Department of Economics, showing that moving from a high poverty to a low-poverty neighborhood as a young child led to measurable benefits in adulthood. These included better educational outcomes and higher incomes – two of the strongest predictors of health outcomes.

With these findings in mind, the AFFH rule is designed to reduce racial and economic residential segregation, and work towards achieving the unfulfilled promises of the 1968 Housing Act, so that more children gain the benefits of living in high opportunity, low poverty neighborhoods. AFFH asks cities to generate plans for reducing segregation, and connects municipalities to HUD data and support to design and implement these plans. This Supreme Court case, and HUD’s policy response, will be equity wins if they can open up some of America’s wealthy, exclusionary and generally White neighborhoods to affordable housing development. Policy conversations about racially concentrated poverty have too often veered towards pathologizing poor Black communities – created through decades of explicitly racist housing policies – without examination of the processes of exclusion that create concentrated affluence. Sociologist Patrick Sharkey writes forcefully that,

“Living in predominantly black neighborhoods affects the life chances of black Americans not because of any character deficiencies of black people, not because of the absence of contact with whites, but because black neighborhoods have been the object of sustained disinvestment and punitive social policy since the emergence of racially segregated urban communities in the early part of the 20th Century. Residential segregation has been used consistently over time as a means of distributing and hoarding resources and opportunities among white Americans and restricting resources and opportunities from black Americans.”

This “hoarding” creates racially concentrated areas of affluence, dominated by White residents. And these communities receive plenty of government housing subsidies, in the form of mortgage interest tax deductions. One of the ways that rich White neighborhoods maintain their boundaries is through zoning restrictions that make it difficult if not impossible to construct affordable multifamily housing (whether subsidized or not.) Hopefully the AFFH can work towards ensuring that some of these neighborhoods become more racially and economically inclusive.

But some have responded to AFFH as if it’s an indication that building affordable housing in high poverty neighborhoods is necessarily wrong. It’s true that housing alone will not reverse “sustained social disinvestment” in poor Black communities, nor will it transform a punitive criminal justice system into one designed to support health. But good housing combined with sustained and comprehensive investment in public services – services that focus on community well being rather than punishment and incarceration – could work to ensure that people who do live in these neighborhoods also have the opportunity to live healthy lives. Furthermore, as previously high poverty urban neighborhoods across the United States gentrify, permanent affordable housing means that low-income families can stay in these neighborhoods and actually gain some of the benefits of new investments. Building racial and economic health equity will require both approaches – dismantling the policies that allow resource-rich places to exclude poor people, but also directing resources to communities that need them the most.

The Misuse of Jails

Most efforts to reform the criminal justice system have focused on state and federal prisons. But a recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice, Incarceration’s Front Door, examines a level of the justice system just as much in need of reform: Jails.

Unlike prisons, jails are locally controlled facilities and were initially designed to house people considered too dangerous to release or at risk of flight pending trial. But the Vera Institute’s research highlights some startling statistics illustrating that they no longer fulfill this mission.

  • Nearly 12 million people are admitted to jails each year. The number has doubled in the last 20 years, even though crime and arrest rates have fallen steeply.
  • About 75% of people in jail are being held for nonviolent traffic, property, drug, or other minor offenses.
  • Over 60% of people in jail are legally presumed innocent, but are too poor to post bail while their cases are processed.
  • People in jail are four to six times more likely than the general population to have serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

The stark racial disparities that characterize the prison system are also seen in jails. Vera reports that African-Americans are jailed at more than four times the rate of whites. Among other factors, this is a reflection of aggressive policing in African-American neighborhoods, “zero tolerance” suspension policies in schools, and the intersections of race and class that mean African-American men are less likely to be able to post bail than their white counterparts.

Even a short stay in jail increases the likelihood of a longer prison sentence, disrupts families and communities, diminishes economic opportunities, and worsens peoples’ health. In a textbook example of the feedback loops that perpetuate problems, the report says: “Time spent in jail exacerbates already difficult conditions and puts many on a cycle of incarceration from which it is extremely difficult to break free.”

But Incarceration’s Front Door also identifies turning points in a given criminal case where there are opportunities to divert people from jail and connect them to resources that support health and strengthen communities:

  • Partnerships between police and mental health providers so that people with mental illness can be routed to community services rather than subject to arrest.
  • In lieu of prosecution, referral to community courts based in restorative justice practices.
  • Ensuring that bail hearings occur within 24 hours of arrest. The authors cite recent research showing that “long-term outcomes are considerably worse for defendants held in jail longer than 24 hours, even if they are later released.”

The report paints a picture of a convoluted and destructive system, but the authors emphasize that the misuse of jails is neither inevitable nor irreversible. Crafting healthy and equitable policies will require identifying and then acting on the turning points that can fundamentally shift the workings of the system.