reintegration

Second Chances: A Deeply Biblical Value

A dove flies above a cage of glass. Image courtesy Yu Lan/shutterstock.com.
A dove flies above a cage of glass. Image courtesy Yu Lan/shutterstock.com.

It’s no secret that the prison population in the United States has exploded in recent decades. We incarcerate our citizens at higher rates than any other developed nation. The federal prison population has increased by almost 790 percent since 1980. The number of children with one or more incarcerated parents has increased at an astonishing rate of 80 percent since 1991.

The mass incarceration of mostly Black and Latino men and women has moral implications in two ways. First, our current “tough-on-crime” approach to criminal justice has cost taxpayers a substantial amount with little effect on crime rates. These tax dollars could be spent instead on education, mental health, or drug rehabilitation. The way we spend public money reflects our public values. (Sound familiar?)

In addition, there are far-reaching moral implications of the act of naming someone “criminal." This label is inhumane, unjust, and unholy.

The “criminal” label has devastating effects on quality of life and equality of opportunity for many individuals. It is nearly impossible to shake. Most federal education grants are not available to someone with a criminal background. In many cities, access to subsidized or public housing is banned based on arrests or incarceration. Many states ban those with criminal backgrounds from food stamp eligibility. Being forced tocheck the box on an employment application indicating a past felony conviction essentially lands that application in the trash. The Sentencing Project estimates a total of 5.85 million people have been banned from voting because of a past conviction.

But Christians have a unique, biblically-based perspective on labels. In Christ, “sinners” become “beloved ones." The excluded, hated, and oppressed become included, wanted, and loved.

When the Fighting Stops

MARIE-LOUISE IS a 34-year-old single mother of three living in Bujumbura, the capital of the southeast African nation of Burundi. When she was 15 years old, she joined a rebel movement during the civil war in her country. “Following my demobilization,” she said, “my family welcomed me back warmly, but my neighbors did not think much of me. I still go around with a firearm ... Even my old friends find it hard to trust me. I have been branded because I am a female ex-combatant.”

Around the world, several armed conflicts are showing signs of winding down, at long last—there is renewed hope that the M23 rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo will stop fighting; the government and the FARC rebels in Colombia are making progress in negotiations toward peace after 65 years of civil war; the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have agreed on a pact to end the fighting.

These events bring into focus the tremendous challenge of reintegrating former combatants into society. The process is especially difficult when they have been forced to commit atrocities against their own people. Think of Guatemala, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia, to name just a few.

The unique characteristics of each conflict make generalizations difficult, but in the stabilization and peace-building process, attention must be given to a complex of transitional justice issues, such as truth-telling and accountability for human rights violations. Other important factors include disarmament, the reintegration and rehabilitation of former combatants, security sector reform, economic justice and jobs, gender equality, the impact of the armed conflict on children (including child soldiers), and the political context.

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