Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s battle for civil rights marches on in the actions of everyday heroes. One of the major civil rights issues of our day is mass incarceration and its impact on the poor and communities of color. Here is a look at the challenge and how three amazing heroes of hope are making a difference fighting injustice.
Fighting Injustice: The challenge of mass incarceration
To understand the civil rights issue of mass incarceration I recommend Michelle Alexander’s New York Times best seller, The New Jim Crow. Whether one fully endorses the intentionality of mass incarceration or not, the impact must be acknowledged. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or parole. As many as 1 in 3 Americans (70 to 100 million) have some type of criminal record.
We’ve created laws that make writing a bad check or committing a petty theft or minor property crime an offense that can result in life imprisonment. We have removed discretion from judges in favor of being tough on crime in ways that destroy people, families and cost us around 80 billion dollars a year.
Poor women and inevitably their children are banned from receiving food stamps and public housing if they have prior convictions. We create barriers to employment which prevent people from becoming productive members of the community. Our punitive justice model must be changed.
Behind the statistics are real people. They are our neighbors and they need our help. Here are three current stories from our justice centers.
Fighting Injustice: The heroes of Philadelphia
No one at Christian Legal Clinics of Philadelphia considers themselves a hero. They would characterize themselves as servants seeking justice for neighbors in need of help and hope. Neighbors like Eva. Eva walked into one of the ten locations the legal ministry serves. She was accused of a serious crime of aggravated assault. Poor and Hispanic she could not effectively argue her innocence.
Like many urban areas across the nation, public defenders are simply overwhelmed. Underfunded and overworked many can only spend 6 minutes on a case file. Cases become plea bargaining mills. Eva did not want to be separated from her family for a crime she did not commit. A record would follow her for the rest of her life. Attorney Bob Dixon could not allow that injustice. He took Eva’s case pro bono. Simply being present and forcing the state to go to trial resulted in the charges being dismissed. The state had no evidence to proceed to trial.
Eva is free. The prayers of volunteer lawyers and a team of compassionate people restored her hope. She sees God in a new way through the demonstration of His servants. Justice is love in action. Today she and her family are actively attending the Spanish speaking church she first walked into for help.
Dr. King wrote from the Birmingham jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
When we come to understand that the injustice faced by Eva impacts us all, we will begin to realize our pledge of liberty and justice for all.
Fighting Injustice: The heroes of St. Louis
Al Johnson does not consider himself a hero. But he is. He could have retired comfortably from the practice of law but instead he formed New Covenant Legal Services to help neighbors impacted by injustice. Some of those neighbors are from Ferguson. Neighbors like Joe.
Joe is in his 50’s. In 2011, he was sitting in a car with a female friend outside her house when two officers demanded he exit the vehicle. Joe had never been arrested in his life so he sought to cooperate and explain the circumstances. He was a high level security employee at the airport and produced that identification. The officers demanded additional identification. Before he knew what was happening Joe was forcibly pulled from the car, shocked repeatedly with a 50,000 volt Taser, placed in handcuffs and then struck by one officer with a closed fist. He was arrested for “Failure to comply”.
Later the world would learn of the abuses of Ferguson in the misuse of such arbitrary citations as “failure to comply”. Multiple charges like this are used across the country to justify arrest. 646,000 people were thrown into local jails in 2015 frequently on minor charges. The poor sit in these jails sometimes for months unable to post bail. 451,000 are released with no convictions.
Joe had no effective representation and was convicted. He learned of a lawyer who helped people in the community and met Al. Al filed a civil rights lawsuit against the department and recently the department acknowledged their wrong and settled the case and expunged Joe’s record.
“I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Mt. 25:36c
Fighting Injustice: The heroes of Indianapolis
Chris Purnell and his team at Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic don’t consider themselves heroes. But every year they bring help and hope to thousands of neighbors facing injustice. Neighbors like Frank.
Frank was a 53-year-old homeless veteran. When Frank was 23 he was arrested for shoplifting. Though Frank was a trained surgical technologist he could not get work because of this 30 year old charge.
Each year 636,000 people walk out of prison without support systems to restore them. Approximately 11 million are charged with some form of crime. Often these charges follow people for years preventing them from housing, public support or employment. A significant number of our returning heroes in uniform find themselves in this category.
Not only did Frank find help to have his record expunged and assistance pursuing work, but he found hope through the prayers and conversations with his lawyer and others at the legal ministry. He learned that God loved him and had a plan for his life. Frank is grateful to God for the angels of mercy who intervened in his life to make a difference.
You can be someone’s hero in fighting injustice
The heroes in this blog are not special. They are everyday people who chose to serve Christ by loving their neighbors. You can too. Communities across America have justice needs. You can help meet those needs whether you are a lawyer or concerned Christ follower. Visit our website to learn more. We can provide you with tools, funds, and all the support you need to change someone’s story.
You can also help raise awareness on the challenges our low-income neighbors face in accessing justice. We are partnering with our friends at the Christian Community Development Association on Thursday, February 9 to celebrate national locked in solidarity day. This day is intended to raise awareness on the challenge of mass incarceration. The CCDA has a helpful toolkit available for free.
Dr. King said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”.
There will likely be many challenges to justice in 2017. Will you stand idly by or will you get engaged in serving the legal and spiritual needs of the poor and vulnerable? Together we can free people from legal burdens so they can flourish. Join us. Get started today.