Strengthening Families through Effective Criminal Justice Reforms
Growing up in a Christian family, I was raised by parents who instilled in me Christian values. Among those values were working hard, conducting myself with integrity, being honest, treating others the way that I wanted to be treated, and being kind, compassionate, and generous to those less fortunate.
As a conservative, those same values have guided my politics throughout my life, and it is those same values that compel me to write this article today.
I can’t think about those less fortunate in this country without thinking about those who have become a part of our criminal justice system, as well as those around them. My values demand that I seek justice for those who are wronged, and the Bible says in Exodus that in cases of serious injury, the offender should pay an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. Bearing the consequences for our actions is an area where many of us agree.
That same Bible also says in Hebrews that we should remember those in prison, as if we were in prison with them. These two passages show the character of God. It is a character that includes justice on one hand, and mercy on the other. This is a concept that is all too easy to forget today. We have become a society that is heavy on justice, and light on mercy.
I say none of this to suggest that we should be any less just, but rather to say that we should approach those who have done wrong with compassion, realizing that they should not be forever defined by their worst moment in life.
It is also important that we don’t forget others who are impacted when one of our fellow citizens is incarcerated. It isn’t just the offender who is impacted, it is the child raised without a parent, the mother growing old without her child, the spouse, trying to do it all on their own, and society, who bears the financial burden of incarceration, correction, and associated costs that go along with that. It is also the workforce that loses a potential laborer.
There is much room for improvement in our current justice system. As an organization, the Christian Coalition is focused on 3 main areas: prevention, correction, and reintegration.
When talking about prevention, it is necessary to look at the root issues that cause a person to turn to a life of crime. From a societal perspective, there are a number of things that could cause this. It could be poor role models, it could be poverty and desperation, it could be addiction, and almost always, it involves a lack of education.
Those who are best educated realize that life is full of legitimate opportunities for advancement, and that it is unnecessary to turn to crime to create a better circumstance for ourselves. It is crucial that we educate our youth about the opportunities that exist for them, and that we insure that all kids have access to a quality education.
For those who do end up offending, we owe it to them, to the taxpayers footing the bill for our corrections system, and to have a system in place that truly works in a corrective fashion. For too many, the time in prison is idle time, and does not lead to behavioral correction. For those who committed crimes to feed an addiction, we need to have a treatment plan to address addiction. For those who are suffering from mental illness, we must have a plan to address that as well. If we aren’t getting to the root of the problem, we are wasting both time and money, and are likely to see the same offenders re-enter the system down the road.
Programs that educate and encourage a path from incarceration to the workplace should be incentivized and encouraged. The idle time spent in prison could be better used gaining useful life skills that are likely to lead to meaningful employment upon re-entry into society.
This leads us to the third priority; reintegration. In our efforts to punish crime, we may have been a little overzealous over the years and created some significant barriers to re-entry. While there are many, I will only address a few here.
One of the most obvious barriers has become known simply as the box. On most job applications, there is a box that asks if the applicant has ever been convicted of a felony. Applicants who check this box are all too often screened out of the application process before ever getting a chance to explain what happened. They are forever defined by their worst moments.
While that is a fair question for an employer to ask, requiring that it be asked during an interview, and not on an application gives the applicant the chance to offer an explanation, and gives them a fighting chance at finding a meaningful job. Employers who have voluntarily banned the box have reported that offenders who have been given a second chance at life have been some of their most productive employees.
Another barrier is the laws relating to professional licensing. This type of legislation prevents someone who may have committed a crime 20 years ago from obtaining a license to become a cosmetologist, or an insurance agent, or any other career that requires a professional license. Eliminating opportunities for employment only increases the chances that a former prisoner will reoffend. Often, the crime for which they were convicted has nothing to do with the license they are seeking, and if we genuinely believe that an offenders debt to society is paid, we shouldn’t forever stamp them with a “scarlet letter.”
Housing is another area for concern. When a former prisoner is released, they often reenter society with almost no money, few friends, no support network, and no job. This often leads them to the worst neighborhoods, including neighborhoods that are unsafe. As a former felon, some states prohibit them from voting, limiting their opportunities to improve their local government. They are also prohibited from owning a firearm, even if their crime was not violent, and therefore are unable to protect themselves, or their family in these troubled neighborhoods. Some choose to obtain protection illegally, and thus end up violating parole, and returning to prison. It is a cycle that continues to perpetuate itself, and if we ever want it to end, we need to consider meaningful reforms.
I appreciate the upbringing that I was privileged to have, and the opportunities that it presented to me. I also recognize that there are many who don’t have the same opportunities that I did. My upbringing dictates that I should look at these situations with compassion, and not just as a bystander, but in a way that seeks to make a meaningful difference. There are certainly bad people in the world, but I recognize that there are also good people, who made bad mistakes. As I reflect on what the Bible teaches about redemption, I can’t help but see all the ways that we often treat those who have committed crimes as unredeemable, and I am thrilled to see the Christian Coalition lending its voice to changing that narrative. I hope that you will join us.
Keith den Hollander – National Field Director Christian Coalition