“Today a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living ‘free’ in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow.” Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, p. 141.
Today, over 65 million American adults have a criminal record. That’s 1 of every 4 American adults. *see NELP, 65 Million Need Not Apply
While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned… The incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color: 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men. *see Center for American Progress, The Top 10 Most Startling Facts About People of Color and Criminal Justice in the United States
Yet, people of all races participate in criminal activity at remarkably similar rates.
Once someone receives this “mark of Cain”, they are subject to a form of “internal exile” that relegates 1 in 4 American adults, disproportionally people of color, to a permanent second-class status. *See Webb Hubbell, “The Mark of Cain”, San Francisco Chronicle, June 10, 2001 and Nora Demleitner, Preventing Internal Exile
“Ex-cons” or “Felons” or “Ex-offenders” now become part of the one social group in America that we are free to hate. We can “treat them like criminals”, less than human, unworthy and shameful. Legal discrimination becomes the norm. We may have banned the “Whites only” signs, but new signs have taken their place — if you have a criminal conviction check the box on an employment application, housing application or rental agreements, or even loan applications, forms for public benefits, school applications, and petitions for occupational licenses. Driver’s licenses may be taken away. Health care is often unavailable. Federal educational assistance most often is out of reach. Enrollment in the military? Forget about it. Don’t even think about owning a firearm for your own protection. Oh, and you are not trustworthy enough to serve on a jury, and we might not even let you exercise your right to vote.
You are no longer one of “us”, the deserving. Even though you have paid your debt to society, you have been stained. Permanently. And this is a form of perpetual punishment that most criminal defendants are never told about, an existence often more difficult to bear than the prison or jail time. You can’t get housing or drive a car, can’t find a job and lose much of your social support system, so you likely will lose your kids, your dignity battered and hanging by a thread. It is no wonder that many are forced back behind bars or into the shackles, whether literal or figurative, from which they came. Try as hard as you can, but discrimination is legal and a lifetime of shame, derision, and exclusion awaits. This is the world of “returning citizens” and the 65 million Americans with criminal records.
Do you want to live in this world? Not me. I would much rather live in a world where we don’t give lip service to second chances. A world where a fair chance is the norm, where forgiveness and mercy rule the day. A world where redemption breathes life into all of our souls. Let us enter into this eternal kind of life now and together, the deserving and undeserving alike.
And we may just find that those we think are the undeserving, actually deserve it a lot more than us deserving ones.
For the least among us is the greatest.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.