One young person’s subversive thoughts on church and society
When criminal records make you untouchable
We are called, as a church, to support and advocate for the people whose past is sealing the fate of their future.
by Tad Hopp
Our country seems to think that if you’ve served time in prison that makes you ineligible for all the things that can help you get your life back on track. We seem to think that incarceration disqualifies a person from participating as a full citizen in our economy and democracy.
The result is second-class citizenship for more than 70 million people in the United States, people barred by prison walls that extend far beyond the penitentiary.
People with felony drug convictions aren’t eligible for most government benefits such as food stamps or social security. They have a harder time finding housing and jobs. And in all 50 states, except Maine and Vermont, citizens convicted of a felony lose the right to vote; in a few states it only takes a misdemeanor. And while all states provide mechanisms for these individuals to regain voting rights, many require such an extensive, misleading, and onerous process that people never vote again.
These men and women get out of prison and are expected to make something of themselves, to rejoin society, but aren’t allowed to access any of the resources that would actually help them get back on their feet. And then we wonder why so many of them end up going back to prison. Does anyone else find that to be so incredibly messed up?
For context, most employment applications ask you to check a box if you have ever been convicted of a crime. If you check yes, many employers won’t even consider you for the job. There are currently 18 states that have “banned the box,” meaning that employers are not allowed to ask you on applications about your criminal record. This means, however, that there are still 32 states where someone with a criminal record can be denied a job solely because of their history. This allows employers to discriminate against people before they even have a chance to interview and prove they are worthy of the job.
We treat ex-offenders like pariahs. (Even that term ex-offender defines their central identity by their criminal record.) We find out someone has spent time in prison, and suddenly we don’t want to associate with them, regardless of what they might have done to end up in prison (and regardless of the fact that people convicted of nonviolent drug and immigration offenses make up more than 60 percent of the US prison population). We don’t want them around our kids. We don’t want them in our communities. We don’t want them in our churches. So, we end up shunning them and making them feel hopeless.
‘There’s this beautiful thing that God provides us called grace. It is through God’s grace that all of us are saved. . . . No one gets left behind, not even those with a criminal record.’
Here’s what I believe about people with a criminal record. They are people too. They deserve to be treated like people. Yes, they may have done a terrible thing in their past (assuming they actually did it at all). However, no one deserves the Scarlet Letter treatment no matter what their past mistakes. We all have made mistakes. We all fall short. But there’s this beautiful thing that God provides us called grace. It is through God’s grace that all of us are saved and all of us are chosen for redemption and salvation. No one gets left behind, not even those with a criminal record.
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” says the Lord in the prophecy of Isaiah. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in a desert” (43:18–19).
There’s no shame in having spent time in prison. Yet, we continue to act like there is. We continue to degrade and deny vital services to those who’ve spent time in prison. It goes against everything our Christian convictions teach us about grace and redemption. Friends, we worship a man who routinely broke bread with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other folks that society deemed irredeemable. We worship a man who loved people that society found unlovable. How can we claim to be followers of this man when we aren’t willing to do the same things he did?
As Christians, we are called to be in community with those that society has deemed pariahs. We are called to bring them into our communities and to support them as they attempt to get back on their feet. Part of that calling includes advocating for reform and changing the system. The church needs to take a stand and speak out. We need to end the shame and end the silencing surrounding prison convictions.
It is a big, scary world out there, particularly if you’ve done time in prison. Particularly if your family has abandoned you while you’ve been in there. Many ex-offenders get out of prison and find that they have no support network to turn to.
This is where the church needs to step in. The church should come alongside the formerly incarcerated and help them find the job, housing, education opportunities, support network, medical and psychological care, and everything else they need to be stable and support themselves again. We need to be the ones advocating for “ban the box” on job applications and for prison reform. We need to be providing a Christian community of worship, discipleship, and mutual love (as well as accountability).
Yes, I am very aware that there are certain kinds of crimes that prohibit someone from being able to fully participate in the life of the church, and I would certainly never ask for a church to put their members at risk, particularly their children and youth. But those individuals are a small minority, and there are ways we can extend grace while carefully and strategically protecting our members and their families.
Most individuals, though, convicted of a crime, do not fall in this category. They need us, and, I dare say, we need them.
Let us live into our Christian convictions and be the support network that they need to rebuild their lives. We can do no less.
Tad Hopp graduated in May 2015 from San Francisco Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity. He enjoys a good movie, singing karaoke, and anything involving the arts (theater, ballet, opera), and is a self-proclaimed Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter nerd! He served as a Young Adult Volunteer in Chicago (2010–2011) working with the homeless queer population. He is a lifelong Presbyterian, an ordained ruling elder and deacon, and currently a candidate for ordination.