Jean Valjean was found guilty: The terms of the penal code were explicit. In our civilization there are fearful times when the criminal law wrecks a man. How mournful the moment when society draws back and permits the irreparable loss of a sentient being. – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
The action in the musical version of Les Misérables begins when Jean Valjean is released from prison. After his release, his identity as a convict bars him from work, shelter, and human company, until he meets a saintly bishop, and his character arc kicks into gear.
For the condemned in our prisons, there is no guarantee of a kindly bishop or an operatic epiphany. Released prisoners face the same kind of discrimination suffered by Valjean, with similarly tragic consequences.
Across the country, grassroots activists have urged state and local governments to pass “Ban the Box” legislation. These bills would prevent public-sector employers from asking job candidates to indicate if they have a criminal history in their initial application. This legislation doesn’t blindside employers; a criminal conviction will still turn up in a background check made, once the employer has decided to make a conditional offer of employment.
What Ban the Box bills do is keep criminal histories from being an immediate disqualification from a job. If former prisoners cannot reenter the workforce on release, they are likely to turn back to criminal activities. Too many former prisoners share Valjean’s experience of being turned away from honest work because of stigma or stagnation of skills behind bars. Training and welcoming former prisoners makes us safer by lowering the risk of recidivism. But, too often, we ignore pragmatic concerns in favor of the self-righteousness of Javert, the police inspector who cannot forgive or acknowledge a prisoner as his equal.
When Jean Valjean appears for the first time in the stage musical Les Misérables, he is in the process of being paroled, and he is in an argument with his former jailer. When Inspector Javert barks out “You are a thief,” Valjean replies, “I stole a loaf of bread.” For Valjean, his crime is an action in the past, regretted and repented. From Javert’s point of view, the crime isn’t something Valjean did; it’s something he is, now and forever.
Our criminal justice system frequently takes the same view. Over five million citizens are denied the right to vote because they have committed a felony. Disenfranchisement is not akin to parole check-ins or other prudent defenses against recidivism. It is a denial of the former prisoner’s membership in the body politic.
When a prisoner’s sentence is finished, the debt between him and society is settled. The time served made restitution for the crime committed, so now the criminal justice system must reintegrate him into full participation in society. If prison does not prepare prisoners to become full, happy, healthy citizens, we have not held up our end of the bargain. The social contract and the bounds of civil society demand this much of us.
But even if a person breaks his part of the social contract by breaking the law, the criminal has a higher claim on us than that of mere citizenship. His membership in the human family cannot be dissolved any more than any act, however abhorrent, can break the bond between brother and sister. His human dignity demands our care and compassion, even if he is fallen so far as to reject help.
A criminal justice system that is not oriented toward rehabilitation and restoration answers one injustice with another. Two people are wounded by a crime: the victim and the person who has made the choice to victimize another. The more severe the crime, the greater the wound to the criminal’s character and the more urgent the need for healing. Justice strives to make the victim whole and heal the victimizer, so that both can live full and compassionate lives. The life of the victim is not restored by throttling the soul of the criminal.
And it does no service to the soul of society. If our prisons are full of Valjeans, our body politic is thronged with Javerts. Near the end of the show, the inspector’s rigidity and hatred of mercy drive him to suicide. With one out of every hundred American adults in prison, our callousness is no less fatal.
Leah Libresco blogs for Patheos’s Catholic portal at Unequally Yoked.
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