In 2000, Pope John Paul II proclaimed that “we are still a long way from the time when our conscience can be certain of having done everything possible…to offer those who commit crimes a way of redeeming themselves and making a positive return to society.” In this statement, His Holiness reminded us that our faith requires us to ensure that our neighbors who sin receive both justice and mercy, not just the former.
Fast forward 17 years, reentry into society is still both a daunting and discouraging task for too many formerly incarcerated individuals. The stigma of a criminal record – no matter how petty the offense – follows people for life, as they try to support their families, realize their full potential and become fully contributing members of society. Perhaps nowhere is this stigma more prominent for an individual than the search for a decent-paying job.
Nationally, only 40 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals report finding a job one year after their release. For those who can find meaningful employment, they often earn substantially less than those without a criminal background. For the 1.5 million Coloradans on the state criminal data base, these facts hold profound implications for the course of their lives.
We agree with, and our faith calls for, reasonable punishment when one commits a sin against society. But our faith also calls for mercy and the vast majority of those who have completed their punishment return home wishing to provide and care for their families. The fact that those among us who have been involved with the criminal justice system are often unable to compete in the workforce is a stain on our social fabric. When our neighbors are unable to work, their children suffer and our communities remain vulnerable to criminal acts. As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops notes: “We are all sinners, and our response to sin and failure should not be abandonment and despair, but rather justice, contrition, reparation, and return or reintegration of all into the community.”
Reasonable steps can be taken to help these individuals compete in the workforce and reintegrate into society. Studies consistently show that a key barrier to employment for an individual with a criminal record is when a job application requests information on their involvement with the justice system. When someone checks the box indicating they have been charged or convicted of a crime, their application is often discarded immediately. This “box” on an initial application prevents many individuals, who would otherwise be considered qualified for the position, from having a face-to-face interview with a potential employer. This prevents individuals with a criminal background from having the opportunity to adequately explain the offense as well the steps they have taken to rehabilitate themselves.
This year at the state legislature, the Colorado Chance to Compete Act, HB 17-1305, seeks to foster more of those face to face conversations and employment by removing inquiries into an applicant’s criminal history on most private sector job applications. Commonly known as “ban-the-box” legislation around the country, this bill allows employers to fulfill the sentiment outlined in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
We all commit sins throughout our lives, but by the mercy of God’s justice we can move on with our lives and care for our families. If enacted, the Colorado Chance to Compete Act will rectify an immoral aspect of our approach to criminal justice and help countless Coloradans realize the mercy of God’s grace and re-enter society.
The national conversation on criminal justice reform is heavily focused on the living conditions of prisoners and the laws that put people behind bars. But, and as Pope Francis has acknowledged, this conversation is not complete without “the Institutions’ concrete commitment to bring about an effective reintegration into society. When this objective is neglected, the implementation of the penalty degenerates into an instrument of punishment alone and of social retaliation, which in turn is detrimental to the individual and society. And God does not do this with us. God, when He forgives us, He accompanies us and helps us along the way. . . This is the love of God, and we must imitate it! Society must imitate it.”
We wholeheartedly support the Colorado Chance to Compete Act and implore you to contact your state legislator and voice your support for this legislation.
(Jennifer Kraska is executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, the legislative arm of Colorado's four Catholic bishops.)