How poverty skews justice

Criminal records and removing barriers to second chances

June 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

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24