Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Criminal Injustice: Collateral Consequences and the Gospel of Reconciliation

A couple weeks ago, I participated in the C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical Contest at Bluffton University. It was an exciting opportunity to proclaim God's message of grace and reconciliation, and I ended up earning second place! So, for those of you who didn't make it out that night (or for those of you who did), here is the text of my speech:

      This evening, I would like to invite you into an unlikely dialogue— a dialogue between the U.S. criminal justice policy and the biblical text. Specifically, I will focus on the collateral consequences of criminal convictions, which are the laws and policies in place that make reintegration into society nearly impossible after individuals have served prison sentences. Turning to the biblical text, I will examine these laws and policies through the lens of the story of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of Luke, exposing and dismantling the structural violence in the U.S. criminal justice system. Finally, I will issue a challenge for each and every one of us— to imagine and create a criminal justice system shaped by the narrative of reconciliation found in the biblical text rather than the narrative of violence, injustice, and fear that permeates the world in which we live. As God’s people, the story of the Prodigal Son— a story of abundant grace and reconciliation— is our story; informed by this narrative, we must work for criminal justice reform, calling for a truly just system characterized by reintegration, restoration, and reconciliation.
       First, we must expose the structural violence in the U.S. criminal justice system. While the injustice in the system is extensive, this evening I will focus specifically on the collateral consequences laws. While many people assume that a person’s prison sentence is the extent of their punishment, this is simply not the case; the collateral consequences laws impose life-long punishment over and above time in prison. According to Marc Mauer in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, in addition to their prison sentence, 18-year old first-time drug offenders in many states are denied access to welfare benefits, public housing, and federal loans for college, as well as permanently denied the right to vote (610).
Further, Mauer points out the common practice of denying employment to individuals with even minor previous criminal convictions. With 47 million people having criminal records on file (Mauer 3), these laws and policies impact nearly one in six of the 312 million people currently living in the United States according to the Census Bureau. One in six of our sisters and brothers in the United States left without a job, without access to food and housing, without the hope and opportunity of an education, and even denied the right to vote. One in six of our sisters and brothers trapped in a cycle of poverty, violence, and crime. One in six of our sisters and brothers, shackled for life by invisible chains of injustice that have been locked with our consent, the key thrown away as we have remained complicit to the status quo of the criminal justice system.
With these 47 million people in mind— 47 million real lives, real faces, and real stories— let us turn now to the biblical text. Luke 15 tells the story of the Prodigal Son, the story of a young man who takes his share of his father’s estate, runs away to a distant country, and throws away his resources and the honor of his family in corrupt living. Realizing the mistake he has made, and ashamed of his actions, he chooses to return to his father, hoping to be taken in as a hired hand since he is no longer worthy of the family name. This is the story of a sinner, an offender, a criminal, returning to his community— an experience familiar to many of our sisters and brothers in the criminal justice system.
With them in mind, hear now the story of the return of the Prodigal Son from the Gospel of Luke: “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him…the son said… ‘Father, I have sinned against…you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe— the best one— and put it on him…get the fatted calf and kill it…let us eat and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found!’” (Luke 15.20-24 NRSV). Tonight, I would like to suggest that the story of the Prodigal Son subverts the status quo of our criminal justice system, exposing and dismantling structures of injustice and oppression and inviting us to imagine and create a system marked by the reconciliation of the sinner, the offender— the Prodigal Son.
When people complete their prison sentences, the U.S. criminal justice policy prevents the story of the Prodigal Son from playing out in our communities. People with previous convictions are denied employment in the U.S., but the biblical narrative goes beyond employment, welcoming the offender not as an employee but as a member of the family, as a son, as a daughter; and not only that, the Prodigal Son is the most treasured family member precisely because he was lost, he did make mistakes, but now he has returned, he is found, he is alive! (Luke 15.24) The father welcoming his son back into his family is an act of abundant grace and reconciliation. Before the son can even get the words out of his mouth, “I am no longer worthy…” (Luke 15.21), the father exclaims, “this is my son!” Here we find no collateral consequences— only collateral compassion and collateral celebration.
        Comparing the U.S. criminal justice policy and the story of the Prodigal Son also leads us to consider issues of scarcity and abundance. While the collateral consequences laws create a world of scarcity in which many people with past criminal convictions are deprived of basic human needs, the story of the Prodigal Son is a narrative of abundance. While the criminal justice system says to those returning to their community, “You don’t deserve anything,” the father in the story of the Prodigal Son says, “Give my beloved son the best we have.” The U.S. criminal justice policy condemns those with previous criminal records, deeming them unworthy of life itself by denying them access to the things they need to survive. But in the story of the Prodigal Son, the father affirms the sacred worth of his child, giving him not only everything he needs, but everything the father has— everything the son does not deserve. That, my friends, is grace— completely unmerited, undeserved free gift.
 You see, this story is not just about criminals— this story is about you and me, ordinary prodigals. This is the story of our journey, our sin, our reconciliation to God, and our call to continue God’s work of reconciliation in the world. We have been prodigal daughters and prodigal sons— we have squandered the free gift of God— and we have been and are being welcomed home into the arms of God, our mother and our father. The fatted calf has been killed, the celebration has begun— this reality of abundant grace and reconciliation is our reality, the reality in which we live and the reality we are called to create.
In closing, let us consider these words from John Howard Yoder’s Body Politics: “Church and world are not…two institutions with contradictory assignments, but two levels of the pertinence of the same Lordship. The church is called to be today what the world is called to be ultimately” (10). This means that the dialogue between the U.S. criminal justice policy and the story of the Prodigal Son is not a debate between two separate, competing realities. The point is not for us to live in the reality of God’s grace and reconciliation and ignore the harsh, unforgiving reality of the world around us. Rather, as God’s people, we are called to engage in the reality of the world, transforming structures of oppression and injustice and creating a world shaped by God’s vision of reconciliation, justice, and peace. As prodigals who have been reconciled by the abundant grace of God, we must call for a criminal justice system shaped by the gospel— the good news— of reconciliation. And along with God, our abundantly merciful mother and father, we are called to celebrate as our prodigal sisters and brothers return home, proclaiming, “This—this is my sister! She was dead, but she is alive again! She was lost, but now she is found!” With these words and this welcome, let the celebration begin!
Works Cited

Mauer, Marc. “Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions: Barriers to Reentry for the Formerly Incarcerated.” Presented to House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. 9 June 2010.

Mauer, Marc. “Thinking About Prison and its Impact in the Twenty-First Century.” The Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 2:607 (2005): 607-618.

"U.S. & World Population Clock." Census Bureau Home Page. Web. 02 Apr. 2011.

Yoder, John Howard. Body Politics. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2001.


  1. WOW!!! Katie - this is really powerful stuff you've written! I so wish that I had been there to hear the oral word. The written word is impressive. With your passion, I can't help but believe that your speech was anything short of inspirational.

  2. Katie -- i am totally impressed with your writing and your thinking. I'd like to share this with somr others who are involved in working with reentering felons here in Toledo. I too wish I had heard your presentation. Karen