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Former inmates face housing hurdles. NJ looks to change that — and reduce recidivism

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

Though he peppered Jersey City landlords with a flurry of applications, future restaurant owner Candido Ortiz couldn’t find a place to live in the same city where he worked. Once landlords ran a background check, he would routinely be denied, or not hear back.

Ortiz had served 28 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute narcotics and possession of a firearm. In 2016, President Barack Obama commuted his close-to-50-year sentence, also granting clemency to hundreds of other federal inmates convicted of nonviolent drug crimes under previous harsh sentencing rules.

That didn't matter to landlords once they ran a background check on Ortiz. “At that point, they find out where you came from, so you don’t have to be too smart to know why they don’t give the place to you,” said Ortiz, 60.

Because of those background checks — as well as difficulty securing a job and steady income, and a lack of identification cards or credit history — finding a place to live is one of the many struggles that former prisoners face once they have served their sentences. People leaving prison are almost 10 times more likely than the general population to become homeless, according to the nonpartisan research group Prison Policy Initiative.

And Black and brown communities are hit harder than most: Black people make up more than 60% of New Jersey’s prison populations, though they make up about 13% of the overall state population, according to New Jersey Department of Corrections and U.S. Census data.

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