The United States currently incarcerates an estimated 2.4 million people, a staggering amount given the total global prison population. While the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated prison population.
This disparity has attracted interest in recent years. However, too often another aspect of our criminal justice system is overlooked: most people currently in prison in the U.S. will one day be released.
Some prisoners receive life sentences without parole. However, most people that are currently incarcerated will not spend their entire lives in prison. They will return to society, and be expected to assimilate back into their communities. This is an incredibly difficult process that has been exacerbated by current policies.
People who are convicted of felonies in the United States face a myriad of less visible punishments after they leave prison. In many states felons are not allowed to vote. Many public and private employers require job applicants to indicate if they have ever been convicted of a felony, or in some cases any crime at all.
In addition, those convicted of drug-related felonies are banned in many states from ever receiving benefits such as SNAP (food stamps) and TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). All of these policies make it more difficult for former prisoners to reintegrate into society.
The ban on public assistance affects a huge number of formerly incarcerated people the moment they leave prison. Many come from poverty, and few have assets or a job waiting on them upon their release. The denial of temporary social safety nets in the U.S. makes it even more difficult to build a new life after prison.
The combination of this ban with the difficulties of finding a job are significant contributors to the recidivism rate in the United States, which is among the highest in the world. Within three years of being released, roughly two-thirds of former inmates are back in prison.
Last month Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington Office joined with dozens of other organizations to ask Congress to lift the federal ban on SNAP and TANF. Some states have already ended this policy, but it is still far too pervasive in the U.S.
Other ways to help former prisoners reintegrate include better hiring practices. Eighteen states have “banned the box” (removed the indicator for a felony conviction) from public employment applications, and seven have banned it on both public and private applications. The federal government, however, has not.
While these changes will reduce recidivism and crime, that should not be our only motivation. As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors (Mark 12:31), and not just the ones next door. We are called to love those that our society has labelled outcasts (Matthew 25:40), particularly given the struggles that they face. Jesus does not call us to condemn those that have been in prison, but to welcome them, and to build a society that does the same.
Peace on the Hill is a monthly column in PeaceSigns written by staff of the MCC Washington Office highlighting congressional developments and detailing ways the church can continue to be engaged in the work of peace and advocacy.
Joshua Russell is Legislative Assistant and Communications Coordinator for MCC’s Washington Office