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Second Chances: Reforming Policy for Returning Citizens

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Dominic Duren, assistant director of the HELP Program for returning citizens, poses with his son Dominic Jr. in Cincinnati, Ohio. Learn more about the HELP Program in the 2014 Hunger Report. (Joseph Molieri/Bread for the World)

By Robin Stephenson

Collateral damage is not always the first thing one notices, but laws and rules regulating citizens returning to society after imprisonment have caused a national wound. It's time we start the healing process. Individuals, families, and communities – particularly communities of color – are paying the price for our broken justice system.

America has always valued the second chance. Our prison system was built on the principle that if you pay your debt to society, you can rejoin society with a fresh start. That is not how it works anymore. Even the smallest of infractions lead to lifelong exclusion.

The practice of mass incarceration – imprisonment of citizens at record levels – traps individuals and whole communities in cycles of hunger and poverty. And it should trouble us even more that it is disproportionality affecting black and brown communities. Civil rights lawyer and author of The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, defines mass incarceration as a form of racialized social control that creates an undercaste.

In the past 40 years, the criminal justice system has expanded, and now includes 45,000 laws and rules that create barriers for returning citizens to rebuild their lives. The United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world, its state and federal goverments spend an estimated $74 billion a year on corrections. As prisons are privatized, the incentive to incarcerate citizens is driven by windfall profits and access to government dollars. The American Civil Liberties Union says the business model of for-profit prisons is dependent on high rates of incarceration.

A report by National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers points out that lack of access to public resources creates barriers when the citizen returns home. Barred resources that are vital to reestablishment can include "employment and licensing, housing, education, public benefits, credit and loans, immigration status, parental rights, interstate travel, and even volunteer opportunities.” With 1 in 4 citizens estimated to have a criminal record, a large portion of American talent is being squandered due to exclusion.

Exclusion is addressed in Bread for the World Institute's 2014 Hunger Report, Ending Hunger in America. Hunger becomes a byproduct of social exclusion when citizens are pushed to the margins of society. "Policies that make millions of returning citizens ineligible for nutrition assistance,” writes the Institute, “only exacerbate the problem." The report goes on to note that “studies show that access to public services that improve economic security, especially soon after people are released, reduces recidivism rates."

People of faith should be concerned with the dignity of returning citizens, as we are all made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). Restorative justice for the returning citizen is supported by biblical tradition, and should be a matter for the faith community. Jesus, a Palestinian Jew, was subject to oppression at the hands of the Roman Empire and imprisoned. He paid the ultimate price for our second chance. It’s time to pay it forward. Grace is about redemption and reconciliation through God’s unwavering love for humanity. When society embodies that grace, we stop punishing people long after they have completed their sentences, and stop turning their families and communities into collateral damage.

 

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