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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Locked up, locked out

For the church, poverty and criminal justice are connected

As a formerly incarcerated person, Kim Wilkins knows the challenges. Finding stable employment, often a parole or probation requirement, “takes effort,” said Wilkins, a member of Bethel Lutheran Church, Chicago. “You have really got to want it.”

The job search can be intimidating for people leaving prison or jail with few skills and little education. After serving their time, they enter a world where employers may refuse to hire them, public housing is denied to them, and only a minimal safety net exists to aid their reintegration into society. The help they need to reintegrate is often inadequate, when it exists at all.

Wilkins’ story is far from unique. In 1980 about 470,000 people were released from prisons. By 2008 that number had climbed to 735,454, says Michael Pinard, a law professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

The steep rise in the number of people incarcerated led the ELCA in 2013 to adopt the social statement “The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries” (www.elca.org/socialstatements). The statement encourages congregations to minister with and advocate for people in the criminal justice system, including returning citizens whose economic prospects are bleak.

Research indicates that people who have been incarcerated are less likely to find stable employment and earn up to 40 percent less money during their lifetimes than those never incarcerated — even when wages lost during incarceration aren’t considered.

Incarceration makes economic mobility (growth in wages over a lifetime of working) a near-impossibility, says Bruce Western, a sociologist at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. After people have served their sentence, they remain vulnerable to joblessness, poverty and homelessness for years to come. 

Today many religious institutions, nonprofits and public officials question why so many barriers to reintegration exist for returning citizens. Why do so many people leave incarceration only to enter a world of poverty?

One factor is the stigma that follows conviction. Not only do former prisoners often lack job-competitive skills, they are hampered by the reluctance of employers to hire them. Recognizing the importance of “allowing people with a conviction history to compete fairly for employment without compromising safety and security on the job,” Roger Dickinson of the California Assembly authored a bill to prevent government agencies from collecting criminal background information on initial employment applications. 

State laws may also prevent returning citizens from working in certain professions. That can include nearly 800 professions ranging from barber to social worker, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Such collateral consequences — civil penalties that follow arrest or conviction — are a significant obstacle and nearly as debilitating as incarceration.

Other significant sanctions include eviction from public housing; denial of voting rights (sometimes for life); and ineligibility for food stamps or small-business, housing and education loans. Some sanctions may apply even without a criminal conviction. In New York City, execution of a search warrant, even without arrest or conviction, can lead to eviction from public housing.

While many argue that it’s in the public’s best interest to prevent certain offenders from working in particular occupations, these sanctions often do little to protect public safety, according to the American Bar Association. This glut of sanctions that don’t bear a relationship to crimes led the ELCA to conclude in its social statement that “the majority of [collateral consequences] are unjust.”

Researchers find that, far from protecting the public, by denying access to welfare programs and housing and permitting employment discrimination, state laws may place pressure on returning citizens to re-offend, especially in regard to drug and property crimes. The very penalties said to deter crime may actually lead to increased crime and decreased safety in communities.


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