By Jeff Brumley and Ken Camp
There’s a growing push, here and there around the country, to stop treating ex-cons like criminals after they have served their time.
The restorative justice movement is nothing new but is taking on fresh energy from proponents working at local, state and national levels. Campaigns are taking on a variety of looks, from local demands for fair-hiring practices to well-coordinated lobbying in statehouses on behalf of those re-entering society.
Whatever the iteration, proponents motivated by faith say impediments to employment, education and benefits like food stamps unfairly extends already served sentences, hurts families and the economy and increases chances of recidivism.
“We can no longer stick our heads in the sand by saying those people are getting what they deserve,” said Sean Smith, pastor of New Horizon Baptist Church in Atlanta. “So they get the scarlet letter over it and never find redemption.”
Smith’s National Baptist Convention church is working to establish a new ministry called Three Essentials, which he said are to expose, educate and empower. The ministry will use a 16,000-square-foot building on its urban property to provide job and trade training for returning citizens.
Like many in the restorative justice movement, Smith and his church are involved because they see the injustices right in front of them.
“My ministry is in an urban setting where there is no avoiding it,” he said. “We are confronting the issues because it’s visceral for us.”
That was also the motivation for a campaign launched in Waco, Texas, earlier this year to convince city and county government agencies, and local businesses, to adopt fair-hiring practices for ex-cons.
That effort, co-led by Seventh and James Baptist Church youth minister Kent McKeever, resulted from his and others’ work with former inmates and their families at Mission Waco.
But others are working in state capitols to ease the transition of ex-inmates into society.
Georgia recently became the 14th state to enact “ban the box” laws, referring criminal history boxes or questions on job applications.
And now there is a move in Texas to make it easier for ex-offenders to make that transition statewide.
Tackling unjust policies
Kathryn Freeman, public policy director for the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, testified recently before the state House Committee on Human Services in support of HB 1267, introduced by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston.
The bill would modify the law to make some felony drug offenders eligible for federal food assistance funds two years after release from prison if they meet certain requirements, and it would enable broader participation of ex-offenders in work programs.
SNAP—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps — enables qualified recipients to buy food while they participate in job-search and training programs. The federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 made people convicted of felony drug offenses ineligible for SNAP benefits unless the state passes legislation extending benefits to them. Forty-one states developed policies to allow ex-offenders to regain SNAP eligibility, but Texas remains among the nine states that have retained the ban.
“We believe denying SNAP benefits to these individuals makes it very hard for them to transition back into society as they attempt to reintegrate into their communities,” Freeman said.
A lifetime ban on benefits contradicts Christians’ understanding of redemption, forgiveness and transformed lives, she said.
“We believe that people who have served their time should — in some way, shape or form — earn back the privilege of receiving SNAP,” she said.
Access to resources that help ex-offenders re-enter society reduces recidivism — repeat offenses after release, according to the CLC.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ recidivism study of 30 states revealed that from 2005 to 2010, about two-thirds of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within three years, and three-quarters were arrested within five years.
Texas Baptists support multiple restorative justice ministries to help strengthen inmates’ relationships to their families and God, ease their re-entry into society and reduce recidivism, Freeman said.
The Governor’s Criminal Justice Volunteer Service Award program recently honored two ministries launched by Texas Baptists — the Huntsville Hospitality House and the Restorative Justice Ministries Network.
The Huntsville Hospitality House received the community service award, and Bill Kleiber accepted the restorative justice award on behalf of the network founded by longtime Texas Baptist prison chaplain Emmett Solomon and the Welcome Back/First Contact Family Ministry.
Of the 70,000 people released from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 2014, about 29,000 did not qualify for TDCJ Re-entry and Integration Division programs.
“Many of these individuals are in desperate need of housing assistance, employment opportunities and contact information for organizations that will provide medical and mental health care,” a CLC-produced document on prisoner re-entry states. “Research suggests that the most critical period for someone leaving prison is the period immediately following release.”
Many Texas organizations have compiled resource lists specific to particular areas that could be made available to prisoners awaiting release.
“It is incredibly hard for ex-offenders to be re-integrated into society,” Freeman said. “They face difficulty in finding jobs and housing, and they and their families are often outcasts in their communities. They are treated as society outcasts without the benefits of full citizenship.”
That’s even true for people with nonviolent criminal backgrounds, she said, adding that those individuals should have the opportunity to redeem themselves through meaningful opportunities to contribute spiritually, economically and civically in community life.
“We, as believers in Christ, know what it means to be forgiven and redeemed,” she said. “Therefore, we should extend that same forgiveness and redemption to ex-offenders who have served their time and are looking for a second chance to get it right.”