Do you honestly believe Americans are genetically flawed such that we create seven times as many prisoners as the rest of the world? There are 10.2 million people incarcerated world-wide with 2.24 million in the United States. That is seven times higher per capita than anywhere else in the world. Almost one-third of our citizens (77.7 million) have an arrest or conviction record that appears in the FBI database significantly impacting job prospects. Worse, between 10,000 and 20,000 new names are added each day according to the Wall Street Journal (8/18/14).
While the problem has garnered national attention for addressing conditions that contribute toward crime – lack of opportunity and education – and for overhauling the system where arrest, not conviction records, show up on searches and we jail non-violent offenders and have turned prisons into profit-making ventures, little focus has been given to the legal needs facing our neighbors exiting prison.
77% of inmates are returned to prison within five years. Mostly this is a result of our failed re-entry system which is more focused on stringent probation than on any meaningful rehabilitation. As a people, we believe in second chances yet without civil legal aid assistance to expunge or seal criminal records, correct inaccurate criminal records, enforce consumer protections, obtain or keep licenses, housing evictions, secure health insurance, readmit school-age youth in school and other legal issues, the barriers are high. Civil legal aid ensures fairness and justice for all.
Isaiah tells us to return to the Lord that he may have compassion on us “for he will abundantly pardon”. Isa. 55:7. Jesus said He came to “proclaim freedom for the prisoners” (Lk 4:18) and we are judged on how we treat the prisoner (Mt. 25:36). Shouldn’t the people of God and the church of God be leading the way in addressing this problem?
John walked into a church in Philadelphia this last week. He didn’t come for worship, he came to meet a lawyer. John grew up with violence. Arrested at an early age, he had been shot and watched his best friend die of a bullet wound. He moved out of the neighborhood and left that life behind. But years later he could not get a job because of his record. He came to see an attorney about an expungement. Expungements are a legal process where a qualifying past record is erased, often allowing for a new life. It is a picture of grace. We are all lawbreakers and have a record of sin. But Jesus expunges our record at the cross. He cover our sins and allows us a new life in Him.
The young attorney helped John with all the paperwork but then explained to him the hope of the gospel. John had never heard this message. But moved by the compassion and care of all those he saw in this ministry, he joyfully accepted Jesus as His savior. With the lawyers help he now has a fresh chance for employment and with the support of a team at the church who prayed with him, gave him a Bible, and followed up, John was in church this Sunday for the first time. The gospel justice center leader was meeting with a pastor and a lawyer who were visiting because they are dreaming about opening a gospel justice center. After hearing the story of John, they left commenting that revival needed to start somewhere, sometime – why not here? Why not now?
Why not? The need is great and change begins one person at a time. Jesus words in Matthew 25 were whatever we did for ONE of the least of these we did unto Him. You may not be able to solve the massive problem of mass incarceration but you can have a gospel justice impact one person at a time. Stop to serve that person. Take the opportunity to start a gospel justice ministry and
Go and Do Likewise!