He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8 (NIV)
Last Friday, I attended a conference featuring Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I highly commend this book to you, in which Alexander reviews how the War on Drugs and colorblind laws are executed in a racially skewed manner. She also provides an in-depth study of continued stigma and a legally created subclass in America. Alexander has excellent credentials and provides 33 pages of end notes that support her research.
In addition to Alexander, there was also a panel discussion of the impacts of mass incarceration of African-Americans in Milwaukee. It was appropriate this discussion was happening in Milwaukee since Wisconsin (and Milwaukee County) has the highest black incarceration in the country. In addition, more than 50% of young black men in Milwaukee County have been incarcerated. (For these and other data, check out WUWM’s “Project Milwaukee: Black Men in Prison.”)
Although the drug laws are color blind, how they are executed are not. Police are more likely to stop black men for “looking suspicious” or minor traffic violations, often as a pretense to search for drugs. Prosecutors are less likely to offer misdemeanor plea deals or probation to blacks than to whites. This is despite the fact that drug use and drug selling is essentially equivalent regardless of race. (Note: Source for this information and that which follows is Alexander’s book unless otherwise noted.) These entry points into the criminal justice system are exacerbated by the general lower access to legal counsel.
These circumstances have led to the mass incarceration of black men over the last 30 years – many on minor, non-violent possession. Possession of any amount of marijuana is a felony offense subject to one year of incarceration and a maximum fine of $1,000. One may agree with both the classification as a felony and the penalties.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Once convicted of a felony (of any type, whether or not incarcerated), you are excluded from public housing (and can be excluded in private leasing situations as well). If you have children, you are at high risk of losing custody if you cannot secure housing. Research shows that recidivism declines sharply when housing assistance is made available to those leaving prison.
It is also difficult to find a job since almost all job applications include a box to check if you have been convicted of a felony. This is regardless of whether the felony has anything to do with your ability to do the job, the nature of the felony, and how long ago it was. Further, it can be difficult to get many professional and trade licenses if you have a felony record. Maintaining employment is usually a requirement of probation. Even if you are able to find a job, 100% of your wages can be garnished: 65% for back child support and 35% for unpaid court fees and fines.
Once convicted of a felony, it can also be difficult to feed yourself. If you find some place to live and a job (where hopefully you have some take home pay), an individual convicted of a felony, who has complete all requirements of their conviction, may still find themselves subject to a life-time ban on food stamps and other public assistance programs. Wisconsin is one of the states that has opted out of the ban, but has included drug testing. This seems like a good idea, but if you are struggling with addiction, any set-back means you don’t eat.
Only nine states now terminate voting rights with a felony conviction. However, nearly half of states, including Wisconsin, do not allow voting while on probation – even for a misdemeanor. Felons are also often barred from jury duty. (FAQ’s for federal court state that felons are allowed to serve on juries however: “Persons with a prior felony conviction are not barred from jury service per se; however, juror qualifications include that jurors be of fair character and of approved integrity.” This seems to leave ample room for felons to be removed from jury duty.) Felons often become a voiceless class in America, excluded from both the legislative and judicial branches of government.
All of this makes it difficult to reintegrate with society after prison or to continue to be a part of society while on probation.
I never thought much about how felons reintegrated into society. I knew voting rights were curtailed or limited, but I thought, “If you commit a crime, you agree to forfeit your rights.” Maybe that’s true – but it shouldn’t be true forever. Supposedly we believe that when you’ve done your time, you’ve paid your dues. But this isn’t how our justice system operates.
White, black, brown or whatever color, the goal of the penal system should be rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Alexander believes in reform of the entire system for everyone. What she highlights is the specific ramifications of how America implements its drug laws on black and brown men – and the generational devastation it has on their lives.
As Christians, we are called to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly. It’s appropriate that justice is the first action we are called to.
Without justice, can we have mercy?
Justice isn’t about power, it is about recognizing our common humanity. Justice means that we recognize our own part in a system of injustice. It means that we choose to stand with those who are oppressed – that those of us with voice will speak out. Justice doesn’t hide behind the letter of the law.
We live within miles of each other, but worlds apart.
Again, I don’t write this to be political but because it convicts me as a follower of Jesus Christ. Like David and Rivka and their neighbor Atallah, I live only miles from the neighborhoods where 50% of black young men are or have been incarcerated and are unemployed. Yet, I don’t see them as my neighbor. I don’t see them as made in God’s image. I don’t know them as my brother or sister in Christ. Can I say I have acted justly? Maybe I could before, but I don’t think I can now. Now I need to act differently so that I can act justly.
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” – Luke 10:29 (NRSV)