Why reform is still needed for former prisoners

Removing legal barriers for second chances

June 17, 2019

Nationwide, April is recognized as Second Chance™Month. Communities observed Second Chance Month 2019 with a wide variety of events.

In Fayetteville, Arkansas, I joined a prayer walk called Road to Second Chances. There, I listened to brave men and women who once battled a cycle of addiction, incarceration, and brokenness but are finding their way forward into a new, brighter future.

Those who, by God’s grace, have climbed out of a life of crime or addiction often express deep gratitude for what he has done in their lives. But they still have mountains ahead of them. In America, people with a criminal record face lingering obstacles to housing, education, employment, and other things they need to lead full, productive lives.

Removing legal barriers

Prison ministry, like leading a Bible study behind bars, is a staple of mission-minded churches in America. A Barna poll commissioned by Prison Fellowship® found that more than 80% of Christians agreed or strongly agreed that prisoner care is important. Most practicing Christians in the same poll were also willing to say that people who have finished paying their debt to society should have a second chance to become productive members of society.

But more respondents struggled with the idea of removing the actual legal barriers to second chances for these same people

This disconnect is tragic. Roadblocks to a fair second chance make it much harder for people with a criminal record to successfully rejoin the community. Beyond widespread social stigma, people who have paid their debt to society face some 44,000 documented restrictions barring their access to education, jobs, housing, voting, and more—long after their official sentence has ended.  

Many of the restrictions are more punitive than protective and lack any obvious public safety rationale. For example, some jurisdictions prevent someone convicted of felonies from becoming licensed barbers. This is especially ironic because some of these same states have in-prison programs for barber training.

As we share the good news of Jesus Christ with people behind bars and their children, Prison Fellowship also advocates for restorative values, rooted in the truths of Scripture, to permeate new criminal justice legislation. We call for proportional punishments, constructive corrections culture, and second chances.

Prison evangelism and advocacy for second chances go hand in hand; we cannot logically separate them. If we believe that God calls us to care for men and women behind bars, should we stop caring about their prospects after they are released? If someone has decided to leave their old life behind, would God have us shackle them to it with a set of lifelong restrictions?

No life is beyond a second chance

At Prison Fellowship, we believe that no life is beyond God’s reach. Removing barriers to second chances is a tangible expression of this message of redemption. It’s also a matter of fairness and justice to allow our fellow citizens a pathway to productive, purposeful participation in the community. If returning citizens successfully rejoin the community, they are not committing new crimes or going back to prison. Then we all reap the benefits of safer, flourishing neighborhoods.  

Prison Fellowship launched the first Second Chance Month in 2017. Since then, we have been thrilled to watch the movement for second chances gain momentum. In 2019, the White House and 24 states issued Second Chance Month proclamations. More and more employers are pointing to the benefits of hiring returning citizens, too.

Creating a nationwide culture of second chances—and weaving it into the fabric of our communities and institutions—won’t happen in a single month of awareness. It will require ongoing commitment to change. But for our neighbors who have paid their debt to society, it’s vital that we do so. Together, we can affirm the God-given dignity of returning citizens and proclaim the power of redemption.

Heather Rice-Minus

Heather Rice-Minus is the vice president of government affairs and church mobilization for Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. Read More by this Author