Response to Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice

[1] Given the extensive biblical references to seeking justice, lifting the afflicted, and Jesus’ announcement of his ministry as “freeing the captive, and bringing good news to the poor,” we should all applaud Hearing the Cries, the thorough study developed by the ELCA Criminal Justice Task Force, chaired by the capable Cynthia Osborne. The diversity of participants on the task force is reflected in the diversity of perspectives presented in the study. That range of viewpoints is one of its great strengths; the study impartially represents the range of personal experiences and viewpoints on every issue. The study’s readability is another asset; it is engaging, packed with important information divided into digestible sub-topics, and filled with stories that bring to life real issues for real people in our communities. The language is respectful of people involved in the criminal justice system, avoiding stereotypes and judgmental language. The faith reflections in the study were excellent in providing a theological basis for our discussions. Those of us at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry involved extensively with people involved in the criminal justice system were impressed with the study!

[2] Our critique of the study does not take issue with anything included in the study. However, there are some issues we found to be missing or under-represented compared to the rest of the topics that were thoroughly covered. One such under-developed issue related to the brief comment on women who have been convicted of crimes. The study’s statement that “some” women who become incarcerated are also victims of crime is a great understatement. A recent study of female offenders by the American Correctional Association (ACA) found that over half of all adult female offenders were victims of physical abuse and 36% had been sexually abused; other studies have indicated that over 80% of female offenders have experienced abuse.

[3] In fact, the cycle of victimization and criminal activity can be so intertwined for women, and often for men as well, that it can be difficult to separate criminals and victims. Women involved in our agency’s Women’s Re-Entry Network (WREN) have written powerful poetry that describes the vicious cycle: stories of rape, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, prostitution, homelessness, loss of the custody of their children and fear for their own survival. When the infamous murders of 11 women recently came to light in one of our Cleveland communities, a “graduate” of WREN, now employed and reunited with her child, said to me, “That could have been me.” Like the murder victims, she too had been drifting, drug addicted, and physically and sexually abused in the same neighborhood.

[4] This intertwining of victims and “criminals” gets insufficient attention in the study — particularly as it pertains to impoverished inner city communities well described on pages 15–16. As we at our agency listen to the youth in these communities, we see how traumatized they are by experiencing or witnessing violence at home and in their neighborhood. I’ve heard African American teenage boys say they fully believed they would either be dead or in prison by adulthood, and even having nightmares of being killed. But there are also powerful stories of hope through innovative programs in schools and neighborhoods when a caring adult (even of a different race or culture) provides the love of Christ and a role model for a more positive future. In Cleveland, we’ve heard many hopeful stories; unfortunately these vital programs often have short term funding and end after 2–3 successful years.

[5] Another issue not reflected thoroughly in the study is the subject of funding for prevention programs, community based corrections and re-entry services. Public and private funding is a reflection of society’s priorities, and unfortunately a greater concern has been placed on ‘locking them up’ than on a cost effective use of our resources leading to a humane and just society. Ironically, the recent budget crisis in states is bringing together divergent political viewpoints to decrease the prison population — not because it is the ‘right thing to do’ but because it makes sense financially. Community corrections, re-entry programs that decrease recidivism and prevention programs are all cost effective. If we as a community are not concerned about the wasted human resources of having one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, at least we are finally concerned that it costs us too much. Halleluiah.

[6] Another under-represented aspect of youth and adults involved in crime and incarceration in the study is the occurrence of mental health problems and substance abuse addiction. Frequently, people in prisons and jails go untreated or undertreated, including those with severe psychiatric disorders who often do not receive life-saving and behavior-altering psychotropic medications. Improvements are being made by providing more mental health and substance abuse treatment in prisons and increasingly as part of re-entry services. Mental health courts were mentioned in the study; there are also growing numbers of drug courts. Unfortunately, these diversion programs are not yet the norm. Yet approximately one-quarter of the people in U.S. prisons and jails have been convicted of a drug offense. The United States incarcerates more people for drug offenses than any other country.

[7] If we could safely treat people involved with crimes in the community rather than in prison, how many human and financial resources might be saved? Another step in that direction is the increased mental health training of police officers and use of mental health professionals and crisis teams to accompany police in situations that more appropriately can be handled as a (mental) health issue rather than a crime.

[8] We have seen in our Cleveland community some excellent examples of improved law enforcement — both for the safety of the community and in the respectful handling of those who have engaged in crime but want to responsibly address their misdeeds. A great way to enhance safety for officers, the community and for offenders is the Fugitive Safe Surrender program. The concept was developed after a tragic incident in which a teenager was shot and killed when law enforcement officers attempted to arrest him in his home. Whether or not the youth threatened the officer’s safety is questioned; but there is no doubt that pursuing warrants is risky for law enforcement, the person accused of the crime and for families or friends in the vicinity. With community advertisement of the Fugitive Safe Surrender Program, people with non-violent felony or misdemeanor warrants are invited to voluntarily “turn themselves in” at a large local church or other neutral site — where law enforcement, judges and social service agencies are present to address their crime quickly and justly. Most individuals are able to pay fines, accept probation, or are scheduled for hearings, while a few must be incarcerated. The turnout has been amazing; Cleveland’s second Fugitive Safe Surrender Program was held for four days in September, 2010, and resulted in a new national record of 7,431 people peacefully turning themselves in (4,000 in its last day).

[9] Probably the most underdeveloped section of the study was Chapter 5, “After Crime.” One brief statement covered the barriers or “invisible punishments” people face in trying to re-enter society. The challenge for individuals to gain employment warrants more extensive discussion. If you are in a position to hire, or have sought employment in recent years, you are aware of the importance placed on asking about felony history on applications for employment and criminal background checks for most jobs. “Ban the Box” is a recent movement asking employers to remove that question about felonies on employment applications, thus giving people an opportunity to move past the initial screening in order to be interviewed on the merits of their skills. This does not discount the importance of asking about and verifying criminal background, particularly when certain crimes are relevant to the position being filled (e.g., crimes against children for teachers and day care, financial crimes for positions involving money).

[10] In current society, particularly with high unemployment, a criminal record becomes a “life sentence,” even for people who have been crime-free for many years and are simply seeking a second chance to prove themselves. Most appalling have been the cases where individuals have lost positions they held for many years, with excellent performance, because a law or employer’s policy has retroactively required criminal background checks and enforced blanket prohibition of employees with criminal backgrounds. A nurse came to our agency’s re-entry program, broken and devastated, because she had been terminated from her nursing job of 17 years due to a new hospital policy implementing retroactive criminal record checks. Her felony conviction 25 years ago was known before but became reason for her termination in spite of her good performance. Not only her livelihood but her sense of purpose and “personhood” had been lost in one stroke.

[11] To add to the employment challenges, most states have numerous statutes that do not allow people with felony or criminal records to be licensed or to engage in a variety of professions and work situations. Ohio has 300 of those prohibitions for employment in a variety of fields. Again, there are logical connections between some types of crimes and certain positions for which that prohibition makes sense, but many are simply illogical.

[12] There are numerous other barriers besides finding employment following incarceration — finding an apartment to rent when landlords do not lease to “convicts”; getting medications after your Medicaid or private health insurance ended when you went to prison; having no valid identification; and of course having no legitimate source of income. Given these obstacles, the encouragement of congregations to be welcoming communities to people re-entering the community is important. Our Community Re-Entry (CR) program has provided training to teams within congregations to mentor and assist re-entering men or women with these practical issues, much like many congregations sponsor and assist refugee families.

[13] Our final suggestion is to add some additional context and richness to the discussion questions, which could be done by congregations inviting people outside of their congregations with divergent perspectives to join their study. Our agency’s Community Re-Entry program and our homeless shelter have welcomed requests for a speaker to attend a church or adult forum — this could be someone who has been incarcerated, who has been both victimized and incarcerated, who has experienced racism, or serves as a mentor to youth or incarcerated individuals. There is nothing quite as powerful as listening to the story of another person also created in God’s image, but who has experienced life from a very different vantage point from you and your usual acquaintances. We have hosted lunches at which judges sit down and talk with people whom they had earlier sent to prison. We have had prison guards, prisoners, volunteer mentors and pastors sit around the table to share their experiences — finding more in common that we ever expected.

[14] And in discussing Chapter 5, people might want to consider whether, put in the situation, they would employ or rent to someone who was formerly incarcerated. Would they object if their local grocery store or pharmacy did? At Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, more than half of our staff partners are formerly incarcerated or homeless (or both), and many are our well-loved and respected staff partners of 10, 15, 20 years and more. If we believe that all people are created in God’s image, that we should forgive “seventy times seven,” and that we are to love our neighbor, then we are called to live that out in our everyday lives at work, school, and in our congregations and communities by not fearing those who have had very different life experiences than our own.

[15] In spite of all the suggestions in this response, Hearing the Cries is an excellent, thorough, thoughtful, and theologically reflective study of the complex issues related to crime and criminal justice. We particularly lift up the outstanding section near the end of Chapter 5, “Rethinking Incarceration and Advocacy.” We are called to love our neighbor, and can do so by being involved directly in a personal relationship — visiting those in prison, providing transportation so a family member can visit a prison, listening to a victim or hiring a formerly incarcerated person. At the same time, we are called to seek justice, and to actively participate in shaping our social policies and institutions — whether seeking changes in our community’s jail, supporting funding of prevention programs for youth or our state’s development of community-based corrections, or funding of mental health and substance abuse treatment. Changes and improvements in our policies and justice system have only been made over the years by the active involvement of individual citizens — what a witness we can be to our loving God, and the grace we receive from Christ Jesus, who clearly pointed out that to visit those in prison, to welcome the stranger, is to do so to Him.

Carol Fredrich

Carol Fredrich is CEO of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry in Cleveland, Ohio. This response was written in collaboration with her staff partners. LMM's Community Re-Entry program has advocated and served with people involved in the criminal justice system for over 35 years.