Clinton gets tough on criminals in public housing One-strike-and-you're-out order issued to fight drugs

March 29, 1996|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- Suspected drug dealers, criminals and the households that harbor them would be evicted from public housing after their first offense under a "one-strike-and-you're-out" order announced yesterday by the Clinton administration.

Public housing communities that evict residents for just one incident of drug crime, and also screen applicants for drug use or criminal records, could be rewarded with federal dollars under the directive to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Those that ignore the guidelines could lose funding and face greater federal supervision, even takeover by HUD.

"This policy today is a clear signal to drug dealers and to gangs," President Clinton told a gathering here of mayors, law enforcement officers and public housing residents. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of Baltimore and Hezekiah Bunch, chief of the city's Housing Authority police force, were among those who attended.

"If you break the law, you no longer have a home in public housing. One strike and you're out. That should be the law everywhere in America," Mr. Clinton said.

The order puts teeth into a 1988 federal law that authorized the one-strike policy but did not require cities to enforce it. The law has been ignored or poorly enforced by many cities.

"This is more than just a general admonition," HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros told reporters.

For Baltimore's public housing communities, officials said, the new order is likely to mean tougher eviction policies and closer scrutiny of applicants.

"It will help us speed up our process" of evictions, Mr. Schmoke said.

Especially helpful, city officials said, are guidelines allowing public housing officials to evict tenants once they decide they have evidence of criminal activity; they need not wait for the resident to be arrested or convicted. They should, however, be able to prove their case in court.

"We believe that the certainty provided under this new regulation that someone will lose the roof over their heads if they are involved in drug dealing will serve as a deterrent," said Daniel P. Henson III, Baltimore's housing commissioner.

Currently, Baltimore's housing policy requires that a tenant first be convicted before he or she is evicted, a process that Mr. Henson said can take up to a year after an arrest. And some evicted residents return to public housing through federally required preferences for the homeless, a cycle that could be stopped by screening out applicants with criminal records.

The American Civil Liberties Union, however, complained yesterday that one-strike evictions could hurt innocent people who are unaware of what their children or other relatives are doing.

"It's another example of how the war on drugs has led to an erosion of constitutional rights," said Mark Kappelhoff, a lawyer in the ACLU's national office in Washington.

Baltimore officials will decide how to carry out the HUD guidelines within a few weeks, Mr. Henson said.

Under the guidelines:

The one-strike policy would be written into leases. Tenants would be held responsible for drug-related and other criminal activities by members of their household or their guests.

Public housing officials would have discretion to let some members of a family remain in the home even if other members have been evicted for criminal activity. Mr. Cisneros cited the hypothetical case of a grandmother who had tried in vain to prevent a teen-ager from dealing drugs.

Tenants are entitled to notice and a hearing before they are evicted.

"If you're not involved in criminal activity, the one-strike policy won't bother you," Leora Robinson, a 25-year resident of public housing in Toledo, Ohio, who has raised five children and is raising a grandchild there, said in a speech before Mr. Clinton spoke.

Ms. Robinson, a community activist, said she kicked out a son whom she had suspected of dealing drugs, and she praised the one-strike policy that has been in place in her city since last year.

"I'm not going to live being afraid in my neighborhood," she said. "The policy made my neighborhood a safer and better place to live."

Once residents saw that officials were serious about evicting offenders, Ms. Robinson said, they were more willing to cooperate with police.

And Pamela Smith, another public housing resident from Toledo, said she no longer saw open drug dealing in neighborhoods.

"You can sit on your porch again in the summer like you could a long time ago," she said. "Nothing is perfect, but it's getting there."

Pub Date: 3/29/96

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