Am I My Mother's Keeper? the Case against the Use of Juvenile Arrest Records in One-Strike Public Housing Evictions

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

In the Old Testament, Genesis, chapter 4, verse 9 reads: "the Lord said to Cain, 'Where is your brother Abel?' ? don't know,' he replied. 'Am I my brother's keeper?'"1 Cain's response implies that to know his brother's whereabouts indicates some responsibility for him. By analogy, a public housing authority's reliance on a minor's arrest record to commence an eviction against his family in effect makes the child responsible for his family, which begs the question "Am I my mother's keeper?" Advocates of a one-strike eviction policy, which encourages evictions of entire families on the basis of one household member's or guest's criminal activity,2 would answer "yes." When a housing authority initiates an eviction on the basis of the alleged criminal acts of the child, the parent is often put in the difficult position of either having to force her child out of the home or lose housing for the entire family.3

In 1996, when President Clinton unveiled his "One-Strike and You're Out" strategy to reduce crime in public housing through evictions, he remarked,

There is no reason in the world to put the rights of a criminal before those of a child who wants to grow up safe or a parent who wants to raise that child in an environment where the child is safe, in no danger of being shot down in a gang war, and can't be stolen away by drug addiction.4

While many would agree with this statement, it ignores the effect that the one-strike policy has on families when the alleged "criminal" is a child. Furthermore, it overlooks the difficulty of separating the problem of crime in public housing from the innocent tenants who live there. Instead, the policy represents a catchall solution premised on the idea that those who cannot control the behavior of other household members, namely their children, or guests in their homes, are themselves a threat to the well-being of their neighbors.

Scholar Susan Popkin explains that past crime-prevention initiatives by the Chicago Housing Authority5 ("CHA") have failed by unrealistically assuming that public housing residents can work together to challenge a common, outside enemy.6 The transformation that the CHA has undergone since its inception is instructive.

Pursuant to the United States Housing Act of 1937,7 the Chicago Housing Authority was established to provide temporary housing for low-income people unable to afford '"decent, safe and sanitary dwellings' in the private market."8 During the CHA's early years, its directors envisioned "Teplacflng] slum housing, for both poor whites and poor blacks, with better apartments in good neighborhoods."9 However, the developments that exist today can fairly be categorized as slum housing for poor blacks in crime-ridden neighborhoods. The majority of the housing was built in poor, black neighborhoods, and residents were separated from other parts of the city by expressways or subway lines, resulting in "unimaginable geographic concentrations of poverty."10 With the alarming increase in violent crime that began in the late 1970s and the physical deterioration of the housing stock," public housing in Chicago came to be regarded as "the housing of last resort."12

Today, the CHA is the country's third largest public housing agency ("PHA") consisting of seventeen family developments totaling close to forty thousand units.13 Near the end of the year 2000, approximately sixty percent of these units were occupied.14 Ninety-seven percent of Chicago's public housing is inhabited by African-Americans.15 Ninety percent of public housing households are "on welfare and made up of African-American, single women."16 Only six percent of the families are headed by married couples.17 In the CHA Rockwell development on Chicago's West Side, more than sixty percent of the residents are nineteen and younger.18

The design of most of these "artificially created communities," high-rises surrounded by large open spaces,'9 invited occupation by gangs and drug dealers. …