“One Strike” Laws in Public Housing Undermine Community Service Efforts

Lawmakers like to tout the effectiveness of three strikes laws in providing deterrence for repeat offenders (though when states allow a minor offense to lock someone up for years, it undermines this line of reasoning). However, what about the effectiveness or even the justice in a “one strike” law? If you live in federally-subsidized public housing, this harsh law could cause you to face not only criminal charges but additional-and perhaps far more devastating-consequences.

Washington, D.C. resident Frances Johnson lives in federally subsidized housing with a “one strike” law. When her grandson was caught with a small amount of marijuana last year, the housing authority in D.C. began eviction proceedings. According to the law, even though Johnson herself was not charged with the crime, she is responsible for the criminal actions of any dependent residing in the apartment. With help from a defense attorney, the criminal charges were eventually dropped, but per the Anti-Drug Abuse Act upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, the eviction was justified.

Johnson herself is a community pillar who volunteers her time to work with at-risk children. D.C. Council members wrote letters on her behalf and managed to successfully halt her eviction proceedings, but Johnson still faces two lawsuits in conjunction with the incident. She may not be so lucky again.

Of course, the fairness of the law is questionable, despite the city’s efforts to make sure that those benefiting from public housing are not taking advantage of government housing welfare. But beyond that, such a law could be seen as counterproductive to the city’s intention of enacting it in the first place.

If those who work to do good in the community are punished for any actions committed by their dependents, then those taking in juvenile delinquents to try to provide them a stable living environment may decide that their community service is not worth the risk involved. Citizens like Frances Johnson who are on the front lines of the battle against the cycles of abuse and child neglect should be the exact type of citizens wanted by the officials overseeing public housing.

And yet, Johnson and others like her are subject to these strict “one-strike” laws that do not account for the special circumstances that their situation involves. It’s more than just a tragic story: it’s simply bad policy.

Currently, Johnson remains in her apartment-without her grandson, as part of the agreement to halt eviction-but with such a blatant example of overzealous legal procedures still on the books, neither she nor other caretakers remain safe to continue their good deeds. And that is a lose-lose situation.