Article Jul 12, 2017

What human dignity has to do with criminal justice reform

On April 10, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin signed into law comprehensive criminal justice reform, making it easier for former inmates to obtain employment and allowing prisoners to work for private companies while completing their sentences. The sweeping measures were recommended by Bevin’s Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council.

In a break from hyper partisan gridlock, the law received overwhelmingly bipartisan support from Kentucky lawmakers (the law was adopted by the Senate 36-0 and the House 85-9), and was backed by organizations with wide-ranging ideological viewpoints including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), U.S. Justice Action Network, and Christian ministries.

Key aspects of the new law include:

1. It removes the government restriction on obtaining professional licensure due to a prior criminal conviction.

Previously, felons, regardless of their offense, were barred from applying for occupational licenses. Similar to most states, Kentucky law requires licensure for the majority of jobs ranging from hairdressers, barbers, bus drivers, working in construction, and surveying property. By removing the barrier to licensing and returning decision-making power to licensure boards, the new law provides former inmates access to thousands of jobs that require a license. While licensure boards retain the power to deny licenses based on qualifications, criminal conviction alone no longer automatically precludes someone from obtaining a license.

2. It allows private companies to locate and employ prisoners while they serve their sentence.

This provision provides a means to earn income. Real-life, marketable job-skills that are learned also enable inmates to acquire meaningful employment upon their release. The law stipulates that workers can designate part of their income to meet child-support or victim-restitution payments.

3. It targets drug addiction, the root cause of much criminal activity, through the creation of a drug supervision pilot program (Angel Initiative) that encourages people addicted to drugs and prescription pills to seek help at any state police post without fear of arrest.

Through this initiative law enforcement personnel will work to help connect people to programs and resources designed to combat drug addiction. Local law enforcement agencies have already begun to implement the program and the hope is that Kentucky will become the first state with a state-wide program.

Human dignity

Kentucky’s criminal justice reforms represent a sound and balanced public policy approach to issues that deserve careful attention from Christians concerned about human dignity. By pursuing policies and designating resources that promote justice and offer the hope of redemption, Kentucky is charting a path in step with the Bible’s revealed truth about the intrinsic worth and value of men and women created in God’s image.

While advocating for the new measures, Governor Bevin said, “A bloated, overreaching criminal justice system can rob people of hope. People robbed of hope are robbed of their basic human dignity; people robbed of their dignity are ultimately robbed of their humanity; and people robbed of their humanity make inhumane decisions involving themselves, their families, and their communities.”

Incarcerated people, like all people, are valuable and deserve to be treated with dignity.

Recognizing the underlying issue of dignity, Bevin rightly recognizes human dignity as basic to what it means to be human. To undermine a person’s dignity is to demean their personhood. The Bible roots this inherent dignity in the imago dei; the truth that man is created in the image of God. This means human beings visibly represent God to the rest of the world. Because of this, every person possesses constitutional value.

This is true even in a post-fall world distorted by sin. Even though man no longer properly images God, the image remains, albeit in marred form. But despite sin’s deadly effects, the Bible teaches that God still values his fallen image bearers. In fact, he loves them so much that the eternal Son became incarnate (Immanuel, literally “God with us”), lived an authentically human life, and died for humanity’s collective sin. On this side of the cross, every person is now invited to accept Christ and live with him forever. This is a stunning statement on the sanctity and dignity of human life.

These foundational Christian truths should inform an evangelical approach to criminal justice reform. Incarcerated people, like all people, are valuable and deserve to be treated with dignity. Christians understand that God grants governments and their representatives’ legitimate power to exercise the sword of judgment against lawbreakers. However, Romans 13 teaches that God-appointed governments are not to be a terror to good conduct (Rom. 13:3). Rather, they promote justice and encourage virtue.

Concern for the vulnerable is a hallmark of biblical justice. Defining justice, Tim Keller explains, “The justness of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups [the vulnerable]. Any neglect shown to the needs of [these] is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity but a violation of justice. God loves those with the least economic and social power, and so should we.”

Arguably, those currently incarcerated and those recently released from American jails and prisons constitute the most overlooked group of vulnerable people. Thousands of former inmates are released every year who cannot find gainful employment. Many are denied licensure to almost every entry-level profession and possess no marketable skills. When correctional facilities prioritize removing offenders from society but shirk the responsibility of rehabilitation, high recidivism rates should be expected. Currently one third of inmates return to prison within three years of their release. This means that out of Kentucky’s 25,000 prisoners (95 percent of whom are not serving life sentences), over 8,000 of them return to prison.

Recognizing this reality in Kentucky, Governor Bevin said last year, “Even when a person’s physical prison sentence ends, the stigma of incarceration generally continues in perpetuity, establishing a near-irreversible cycle of crime and punishment.” Thus, to break this cycle, legislators in Kentucky worked together to offer current and former inmates tools for pursuing a viable second chance.

This new law is a worthy model because it targets the epidemic of America’s growing prison populations by confronting root causes that contribute to recidivism and it acknowledges and addresses the hardships experienced by former inmates unable to find employment. Because Christians care about the dignity of everyone created in God’s image, these reforms should be commended.