Why Criminal Justice Needs a Second Chance

April is Second Chance Month.  As people across the political spectrum work to reform our badly broken criminal justice system, Prison Fellowship along with the NAACP, the ACLU and the Heritage Foundation are promoting “Second Chance” month.

Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced a resolution on Thursday designating April as Second Chance month.  Senator Portman also authored the Second Chance Act which provides broader opportunity to individuals exiting the criminal justice system.

Second Chance month highlights the 48,000 restrictions citizens face upon re-entry from prison.  Some 65 million Americans have a criminal record, which limits access to jobs, education, housing, and other things necessary for a full and productive life.

A Strange Week at Bookstores

No joke.  This week my sons and I were in a bookstore when we heard a distinct voice behind us – President Clinton.  We turned and greeted him, had a brief discussion, and stood in the checkout line behind him.  When President Clinton dropped a dollar my son picked it up and chased him down.  Later in the week we were at another bookstore where we met Chris Hayes.  Chris is a TV Host, editor and author.  He was on a book tour for his new book, A Colony in a Nation.

Interesting week.  While Richard Nixon first placed us on a path toward mass incarceration, it was Bill Clinton who accelerated the process.  In 1994 when crime was declining and would continue to decline from its peak in 1991, Bill Clinton passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act accelerating police presence, expanding prisons, removing discretion in sentencing and eliminating many second chances.

Chris Hayes’ new book examines America’s journey over this time.  He blames all of us for contributing to the problem created democratically by both parties.  The solution, he postulates, also belongs to us, the democratic process, and both parties working together.

The fundamental problem behind our broken criminal justice system.

A Colony in a Nation points out the problems in our badly broken criminal justice system.  Much of this we have reviewed before, but it is worth recapping.

To go deeper attend Restore 117 and receive practical tools to help.  You can also review our prior blog, How can I do justice for incarcerated neighbors?

There are two foundational flaws in our criminal justice system.  For Chris Hayes these are embodied in the phrase “law and order”.  I generally refer to “liberty and justice” for all, but the points are the same.  Justice became law.  In fear and an effort to gain political points, we used the law as a club.  Justice became synonymous with punishment.  Getting what one deserved.  We justified this on the need for order.  A word synonymous with safety and security.  But in our rush for order we sacrificed liberty.  We created a wide net that churns people through a broken criminal justice system depriving them of liberty.

The TV criminal justice myth

Hayes chronicles well the myth of TV.  Trials make for great television, but they simply never happen in our criminal justice system.  Our system is a giant plea mill.  Public Defenders cannot keep pace with the volume so they rush to get the best plea.  Often citizens sit in jail, unable to post bond, for months and even though innocent will take a plea just to be free.  Others, have committed minor offenses for which they are guilty but the punishment far outweighs the crime.  A scarlet “C” brands them as a criminal subjecting them to 48,000 restrictions.

Most find themselves in this situation because they lack access to legal counsel both in and out of the criminal justice system.  As a result we remove the liberty of millions of citizens.  America has only 5% of the world population but 25% of the prison population.

A tale of two cities

Chris Hayes tells powerful stories in A Colony in a Nation.  The book opens with contrasting stories between an encounter he had with police and the encounter of Dayvon.  Chris was attending a Republican National Convention with his future father-in-law.  A college student, he made the mistake of placing a small amount of marijuana in his eye glass case.  Police at security found the marijuana and Chris describes the heart-pounding moments before the police let this young white kid go.

Dayvon is black.  A leader of his debate team in high school, he was traveling with his father to attend a Model United Nations.  He was stopped by police because he matched the description of a purse snatcher – “young black male”.   He and his father were pulled into the street while a woman tried to identify him.  She was uncertain.  At the same time Dayvon had the presence of mind to ask the officer to check his pocket where he had an ATM time-stamped receipt showing he was nowhere in the area when the crime took place.  He was let go.

Hayes’ point is one every person of color understands.  Chris was guilty but given a second chance because he was white.  Davyon was innocent and nearly given no chance because he was black.  Dayvon got a full-ride to college and today is a teacher and debate coach, but the story could have been irrevocably altered in that one police encounter.

The critical importance of a Second Chance

Chris proposes an interesting solution to our problem.  He points to University Campus police systems.  College student routinely violate minor laws for which they are given a second chance.  Why?  Because we believe a stupid mistake should not ruin someone’s future.  We believe a student has potential.  So here’s the point:  Don’t ALL people have potential?

Bryan Stevenson in his book Just Mercy makes this point well.  Bryan has spent decades advocating for juveniles demonstrating the uselessness of destroying young lives because of stupid mistakes.   How many of us did something stupid when we were young?  How many of us today break the law when we get in our car?   Why is it that justice as applied to us seeks mercy and grace, while justice applied to persons of color or immigrants seeks law and order?

Christ Followers are People of Second Chances

As a Christ follower, I believe in second chances.  Foundational to my faith is a recognition that I am a lawbreaker and deserve punishment.  God extends mercy.  He promotes justice and the flourishing of all people.  He will punish – absolutely.  But He is a God of second, third, fourth and seventy times seven chances.  Shouldn’t I follow His example?

I applaud Prison Fellowship.  By focusing on people made in the image of God who face real barriers to flourishing, they are able to work with the NAACP and the ACLU.  And by living faith, the NAACP and ACLU are happy to follow Prison Fellowship’s lead.  This is the difference Christ Followers can make when we live our faith in places of injustice.

Take the opportunity this month to talk about how grateful you are for second chances.  Then join with others in making second chances available for everyone.