Many Americans are concerned about the divisions in our country and are looking for something to bring us together. Ideological divisions of Left and Right can be bridged on at least one issue: criminal justice reform.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Prison Fellowship, the NAACP, and the Heritage Foundation are diverse groups representing conservative and progressive philosophies that all agree America needs criminal justice reform, particularly to reduce the obstacles facing those reentering society. People who have served their time deserve a second chance in life.
Most of us believe in second chances. We know that without a second chance our lives may have turned out very differently. Without a second chance, mistakes of youth combined with foolish decisions of any age can derail a person’s track in life. Many have been fortunate enough to receive grace. But others have not been so fortunate.
It’s fundamentally unfair when some people receive second chances and others do not. If this unfairness is endemic within our criminal justice system then we ought to do something. One out of four Americans has a criminal record. This means millions are missing out on all kinds of opportunities.
Without Second Chances, We’d All Be Lost
A marijuana conviction can keep a person from receiving a student loan. If the key to upward mobility is education and if many need student loans to get educated, then keeping those loans from someone over a mistake is wrong. It smacks of punitive rather than redemptive discipline. That policy must change.
The same marijuana conviction can also result in costly fines, driver’s license suspension, losing public housing assistance, and even loss of parental rights, not to mention jail time. Without housing a person can become homeless, without a driver’s license a person may not be able to work, without parental rights a child will miss a parent.
The Bible is replete with examples of second chances. Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. When he returned to the camp and came upon a huge hedonistic party, he was so angry he threw down the tablets and destroyed them. Fortunately, God provided another copy. This is the same Moses who in anger killed an Egyptian who had been abusing a Hebrew. God gave him a second chance, and he ended up becoming one of the world’s all-time greatest leaders.
Peter was one of Jesus’s disciples, yet when Jesus was unjustly arrested Peter denied he ever knew him. He did not deny Christ once but three different times. Peter felt like such a failure he went back to his former profession as a fisherman. But Jesus came to him and gave him a second chance. He gave Peter the opportunity to serve him and help lead the early church.
Mark was an early follower of Jesus and wrote the Gospel of Mark. He was on the ministry team of the apostle Paul. The book of Acts tells us he deserted Paul and the team by leaving Perga for Jerusalem. Ten years later, Paul was imprisoned in Rome and asked if Mark could be sent to him because “he can be very helpful to me” (2 Timothy 4:11). Even after Mark had deserted, Paul gave Mark a second chance.
Do Unto Others
God gave Moses a second chance, Jesus gave Peter a second chance, and Paul gave Mark a second chance. We can give second chances, too. Last summer President Obama gave James Patterson Jr. of Concord, North Carolina a second chance. He commuted Patterson’s 22-year prison sentence for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. After more than 14 years in a federal prison, Patterson was free.
As a young man Patterson became homeless when his grandparents died. He was an illiterate high school dropout who saw only one way to make money: hustling drugs. While in prison he got his GED and found Jesus. The president’s clemency decision was based on several criteria, and after screening out more than 36,000 requests the Clemency Project had sent nearly 2,600 to federal authorities for consideration, including Patterson’s.
In 2010 Congress changed the laws required a much harsher punishment for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. This kind of criminal justice reform gave someone like Patterson a second chance. He was fortunate to have a longtime friend help him land a job at a Charlotte window manufacturing plant. He believes he is living proof that people can change. He said, “I rehabilitated myself through the Word of God… I ain’t going back to that life.”
Not everyone is so fortunate. A young woman in my church got addicted to opioids more than ten years ago. She ended up trying to rob a pharmacy to get more OxyContin. Her issue was a prescription drug addiction, not being a thief. She was a college graduate with a good job at Phillip Morris who got addicted. She was sentenced to ten years in prison. She just got out last fall and still has not been able to find a good job.
If He’s Paid His Debt, Let Him Go
Today opioid and heroin addiction is seen as a serious problem. One fine young man in my church, whose father is a surgeon, overdosed and died. The reality of drug addiction that can lead to death has now hit suburban communities, creating a push for treatment over incarceration. But ten years ago it was different. Criminal justice reform needs to address this disparity. People who were incarcerated for drug addiction need to be set free and be given a second chance.
There are more than 24,000 federal, state and local regulations concerning those who have criminal records. When one in four of our fellow Americans is subjected to a life sentence of indiscriminate punishment, something must be done. From a Christian standpoint there is no absolute foundation for treating a person as inferior in worth based on a mistake of the past, especially if he has paid his debt to society. The present criminal justice system is hurting people, hindering their future and creating collateral consequences that hurt too many.
Legislative solutions should address the lack of proportionality in sentencing guidelines for drug and property crime. Reduce mandatory minimum sentences that are too long. Increase probation opportunities for appropriate candidates. And address collateral consequences by restoring voting rights and implementing fair-chance hiring policies.
There may be hope for progress. On March 30 White House advisor Jared Kushner met with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley about criminal justice reform. A reform bill died in the Senate last year. Grassley said, “We’re trying to reach some accommodation, if there needs to be any adjustment to the bill we had last year.” Along with Grassley the number two Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn, and the number two Democrat, Dick Durbin, cosponsored the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. House Speaker Paul Ryan is also a strong supporter.
This is an opportunity to bridge divisions, something very rare these days in Congress. It is a chance for Republicans and Democrats to come together. Giving a person a second chance should unite Congress and our country. I think it can.