Article

How poverty skews justice

Criminal records and removing barriers to second chances

Jun 28, 2019

Imagine being stuck in jail for weeks over a minor offense—not because you pose an immediate danger to society, but because your family cannot afford to pay the bail set by a judge. You have no income until your trial, your boss lets you go because of your prolonged absence, and your family suffers even more. 

Your trial finally comes, and because your crime isn’t particularly serious, the judge sentences you to probation. But even after you’ve done your time of community supervision, you can’t find a new employer willing to overlook your criminal record. And although your offense could be expunged, you cannot afford the administrative fees to have it removed. You want to move on and be a productive, tax paying citizen, but your record ties you to your past—and drives you deeper into poverty.

For too many of our neighbors, this scenario is not a nightmare, but a difficult reality. The justice system is not always just, especially for the poorest among us. But some states, like Tennessee, are taking important steps to mitigate injustice, thanks in large part to the concerted advocacy of people of faith.

The march toward reform

Tennessee is on the march toward values-based justice reform. In the state, Prison Fellowship®, the Christian nonprofit founded by Charles Colson, partners with the ERLC to advocate for change. Central to this strategy is talking to churches about how criminal justice affects their congregations and communities, and how they can make an impact through restorative approaches in ministry and advocacy. 

One of the people advocating most passionately for change is Lindsay Holloway, a Prison Fellowship Justice Ambassador. Lindsay spent eight years in a trap of addiction and incarceration. But she was redeemed in Christ, received a second chance, and now devotes her life to helping others. She leads a jail ministry team at her church and partners with nonprofits, such as the Beacon Center of Tennessee and the ERLC, as an advocacy speaker for criminal justice reform.

For Prison Fellowship advocates like Lindsay, some of the most important criminal issues that were on the table in Tennessee this legislative session were voter disenfranchisement, bail reform, and the removal of poverty-related barriers to justice. 

Barred from the voting booth

Currently, Tennessee is one of 11 states that bans people with a felony record from voting unless they run a complex bureaucratic gauntlet to restore their right to vote. If the person moves, even within the state, they have to repeat the process. Restoration of voting rights also requires people to pay all fines and costs in full—a standard that’s often unattainable for people working low-wage jobs. 

Crime is serious and requires accountability, but voter disenfranchisement lasts long after people have paid their debt to society. It also disproportionately silences the poor and people of color. According to recent data, more than 420,000 Tennesseans—or more than 8% of the voting-age population—are unable to vote due to a felony conviction. 

State Representative Michael Curcio, R-Dickerson, a member of Prison Fellowship’s Faith & Justice Fellowship, introduced a bill in the most recent legislative session that would have restored voting rights to people who have completed their terms of incarceration, probation, and parole. (Voting rights would still not be restored to people convicted of certain crimes like murder, treason, or voter fraud.)

The denial of voting rights to people who have completed their sentence of incarceration has imposed second class citizenship on millions of our family members, church members, and neighbors in America. Though this bill was ultimately tabled until next session, Prison Fellowship will continue to support efforts to restore the right to vote to Tennesseans with a criminal record. 

‘Pocketbook justice’ keeps the poor behind bars

Other legislation, ultimately signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee, reformed Tennessee’s bail system to avoid unnecessary pretrial incarceration, keep families together longer, and allow people to work before their trial date. Whenever public safety allows, it encourages law enforcement officers to issue citations instead of making arrests.

Another important bill, recently signed by Gov. Lee, removed financial barriers that prevent people with limited means from moving on with their lives. Until now, Tennessee has charged a $180 fee, often compounded by additional fees, to expunge a criminal charge. Today, these unnecessary fees—and their disproportionate impact on the poor—have been eliminated. 

We should celebrate men and women who successfully complete their diversion programs or sentences. We all make poor choices. The important thing is what we do next, and we should not exclude those who have paid their debt to society from being productive community members—no matter their income level. Access to remedies like expungement should not depend upon a person’s pocketbook. Rather, we should continue to unlock opportunities for all people with a record to live up to their highest God-given potential.

A trend toward second chances

Tennessee is on the right track. Gov. Lee has served on the board of a faith-based reentry program for men and exhibits strong leadership toward restorative solutions in criminal justice. The governor even issued a proclamation making April Second Chance Month to “[increase] public awareness about the reentry needs of returning citizens and opportunities for individuals, employers, congregations, and communities to extend second chances.”

As Tennessee continues its push toward justice reform, more and more of its citizens will have access to those second chances. When they get that second chance, there’s no telling how far people will go. 

For Lindsay Holloway, second chances were an expression of God’s love and mercy toward her. And gratitude has made her into a tireless advocate for others. She says, “There’s a lot of people, even Christians, that just think, ‘Lock ‘em up and throw away the key, but that was never an option for me.’” 

Kate Trammell

Kate Trammell is the director of state policy at Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families, and a leading voice for criminal justice reform. Read More