Sunday, March 29, 2015

Doing Justice With Ex-offenders

Today’s paper continued a series they were running on whether Michigan should have a registry of violent ex-offenders just like the registry of sex offenders. Part of the story focused on a young man who had been convicted of second degree murder. At age 38, almost half of his life had been spent in prison. He was up for parole and hoping to rejoin society. He dreamed of being a husband and father and contributing to his community, dreams not unlike those of most people.

He was released from prison at the discretion of the parole board and a judge. Like so many others, his freedom was short-lived. Six months after his release, he went on a crime spree, robbing a number of gas stations and convenience stores at gunpoint, a gun that turned out to be a BB gun.

What happened?

Without even reading on I knew. I had heard stories like this during my time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola this past January. He simply couldn’t survive on the outside. While he is culpable for his actions, it is hard for me not to wonder what society, especially the church, could have done to help.

It is a fact that persons with a felony record have little chance of finding employment at all, let alone employment that will pay a living wage. Often, ex-offenders end up back in the same neighborhood with the same friends and in the same circumstances that led to the poor decisions that put them in prison in the first place, primarily because they have no other support system.

It’s not that support systems don’t exist. In my city they do. But it’s likely that these folks don’t always know how or where to look for them.

One thing that is clear, is that adding an ex-convicts name to a registry will do nothing but harm. The sex registry is a case in point. Consider this: an 18 year old makes the poor decision to streak at a college football game. He gets arrested and guess what? He is now a registered sex offender in some states. Does that make any sense at all?

And how is something like a crime registry not forcing a person to serve a sentence beyond what the judge demanded? How is this sort of thing just? How is it not reactionary based purely on fear?

Ex-cons are not monsters. They are human beings made in the image of God. How can the church help affirm that?

If perfect love casts out fear, as the Bible teaches, might churches find a way to partner with agencies who are doing good work with ex-offenders to show these people that they are loved? Might we be able to begin thinking creatively about how to offer support to these marginalized men and women, and not promote further marginalization?