Jesus, Ex-Cons and “Ban the Box”


On Monday, President Obama announced several measures to help ex-convicts secure jobs, including “ban the box” — a request for the federal Office of Personnel Management to withhold questions about criminal history until the later stages of the federal government’s hiring process.

Opponents of the measure quickly pounced on the news, arguing that “ban the box” will force companies to hire ex-cons (it doesn’t). But politics aside, knee-jerk reactions to “ban the box” and other programs for ex-cons aren’t helpful, especially for those of us who take the gospels seriously.

The prison system is seriously broken

Although most us know that the American prison system is in big trouble, it’s the details that are truly terrifying. Here’s what you don’t know about the American prison system:

  • U.S. prisons are bursting at the seams. Like it or not, the U.S. is the world’s largest jailer. Twenty-five percent of the world’s incarcerated population resides in American prisons.
  • The prison population is growing at an unsustainable rate. Over the past 40 years, the American prison population has grown by 700%. One out of every 100 U.S. adults is currently behind bars.
  • Most inmates are in prison for relatively minor crimes. Parole violations and drug-related charges are the most common causes for incarceration — and 80% of drug-related offenses are for possession rather than sales.

The bottom line? There are a lot of people in prison in the U.S. and the incarcerated population is growing in leaps and bounds. But there’s something else you need to know before you decide that it’s a bad idea to make it easier for ex-cons to get jobs:

The recidivism rate — the percentage of released or paroled criminals that end up back in prison — is also skyrocketing.

According to statistics provided by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ):

  • Within three years of release, more than two-thirds of ex-cons (67.8%) are rearrested.
  • Within five years of release, more than three-quarters (76.6%) of former prisoners are rearrested.
  • Most prisoners (56.7%) who go back to prison are rearrested within the first 12 months after release.

It’s common sense that to reduce the recidivism rate and the size of the U.S. prison population, we need to find ways to help ex-cons land jobs as quickly as possible post-release.

The irony is that we rehabilitate prisoners with job training programs, but instantly reject them when they apply for jobs post-release.

No one is arguing that ex-cons should have priority over other job applicants. The “ban the box” initiative doesn’t even prohibit federal agencies from considering applicants’ criminal history during hiring. It only asks federal agencies to delay asking about the applicant’s criminal history until later stages of the process (which many agencies already do).

Essentially, “ban the box” gives ex-cons a fighting chance by making it more difficult for federal employers to automatically dismiss former prisoners during the initial stages of hiring. The result could be a benefit for federal employers — many private sector employers report that ex-cons are star employees.

“Ban the box” and the politics of the gospel

The idea of second chances is ingrained in our national narrative. But it’s ingrained even more deeply in the gospel. Even more, the gospel makes it clear that Jesus followers have a responsibility to advocate for and serve prisoners and ex-cons.

In Matthew 25, we see the depth of Jesus’ commitment to prisoners:

 I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

Did you catch that? Jesus claims prisoners as members of his family — without qualification. Not innocent prisoners. Not white-collar prisoners. Just prisoners.

I landed my first job out of college with the help of a family connection. At some point or another, maybe family connections helped you land a job. From a gospel perspective, ex-cons and other marginalized people are valued members of Jesus’ extended family. And that means they’re part of our extended family, too.

Here’s my point: “Ban the box” and other programs to help ex-cons find jobs make sense. But more importantly, by supporting these kinds of programs we’re doing what we can to help our brothers and sisters earn a living at a time when they are extremely vulnerable to lapsing into old patterns of behavior.

It’s not about the politics of red state, blue state. It’s about the politics of giving people who are down and out a fair shake.

It’s about the politics of the gospel.


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