This past Sunday I was part of a team in charge of a program about 2nd chances. We had speakers who had been incarcerated, as well as people who were immigrants. The stories were so meaningful and inspiring, and yet, so sad. For most of our speakers, they were on their 4th, 5th and beyond chances. Their courage and strength was remarkable.
We also heard from employers who were committed to the belief that people need to be given a chance to succeed once they have paid their debt to society. It seems that these kinds of employers are rare: one woman told us that she sent out 35 resumes, and only got one response: from the Doubletree Hotel. In Philadelphia there was a movement a couple of years ago to “ban the box”. The box is a place that applicants have to check if they have been found guilty of a crime. By banning the box, employers get to interview without the bias that most of us have against people who have been convicted of crimes and sent to jail. That information would come in the next stage of interviews. I think this is something we need to do around the country.
People who have been found guilty of crimes have very few options once they have come back to a life of freedom. They can’t get jobs or housing, and often end up back in prison where they will at least have a bed and three hot meals a day. They almost always want to live a better life, but the stumbling blocks placed before them keep them from achieving success. I know a lot of people who, while not having been arrested, have come pretty close. Are they so much better than those who got caught? I don’t think so.
The other problem is that the justice system is biased against people of color and poor people. You might be shaking your head in disagreement, but the data tells us the true story. Study after study shows that Latinos and African Americans – especially men – are punished more severely than people of European descent. While Latinos and African Americans make up 30% of our population, they make up 60% of the prison population. Either these two groups are inherently worse that White people, or the system is biased. The data shows the second to be true.
I believe that people should pay the price for breaking the law, but that price should be the same regardless of who you are. The statue of justice is blindfolded, but our just system is not blind to race and culture. For us in the Church, we are mandated – for the sake of our own souls – to care for the homeless, hungry, sick, and prisoners. In biblical times, like now, wealthy people got lighter sentences (or none at all), while poor people, having been abused by the greed of the wealthy, were then punished for fighting back. Most of the prophets condemn the behavior of the wealthy and powerful in support of the poor and oppressed. Don’t believe me? Read Amos – as a start.
We all need 2nd chances, and what place better to do this than the Church? We should be an open door to those who have paid their debt and are looking for a change. One of the best indicators for success is to surround yourself with people who are not interested in crime. The Church is a place of more chances than we probably think we deserve, and if we want it for ourselves, why not for others? It’s a Jesus thing, so I think we should give it a try. Peace.
Pastor Steve Ohnsman has served Calvary United Church of Christ (Reading, PA) since 1999. He has B.A. in Religion & Philosophy from Wilmington College (OH), a M.Div. from Drew Theological Seminary (NJ), a D.Min. in Christian Ethics from United Theological Seminary (OH), and a Ph.D. in Community Leadership from Alvernia University (PA).