Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Healing Communities for Returning Citizens

Dean Trulear


October 12, 2007
"It’s the civil rights issue of the 21st century.”

So declared the Rev. Dr. James Perkins, second vice president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC), one of the nation’s largest African American Baptist bodies and the denomination to which Martin Luther King belonged. Perkins was referring to the crisis in our criminal justice system of record numbers of persons being incarcerated and released from incarceration in 2007. For Perkins and his denomination, this is a civil rights issue for a number of reasons.

First, the number of African Americans and Latinos incarcerated is significantly disproportionate to the population. This is true of adults and even more glaring among the juvenile population. In 2002, the federal government reported that while Blacks made up 16 percent of the juvenile population, they constituted 29 percent of the juvenile caseload. Conversely, white youth accounted for the largest number of detentions but when compared to other ethnic groups were the least likely to be confined.

Even our federal government has voiced its concern, having developed an office of Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) at the Department of Justice. (Initially, DMC stood for Disproportionate Minority Confinement.) Many of those concerned cite the example of the suburban police officer who picks up a young person and takes him or her home to report the transgression to parents, thus keeping the youth out of the criminal justice system. The inner city youth, by contrast, is taken straight to the police station for processing. The facts of the Jena 6 case fit this scenario.

Second, when it comes time for the release of many of the minority persons, their communities are unprepared for their reentry.

PNBC is responding to these critical conditions with a prisoner reentry initiative that is based on the Healing Communities model developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That model starts from within congregations to work with incarcerated persons and their families through the traditional resources of pastoral care while also working to heighten the awareness of church members that incarceration is a civil rights issue. The PNBC program encourages churches to “identify people in your own congregation who have an incarcerated loved one.” The congregation then takes action very much like the action it takes in caring for the sick and their families through visitation and support. After all, says Rev. Dr. DeeDee Coleman, “both issues are in the same text in Matthew 25.”

Pursuing this kind of pastoral and congregational care for incarcerated persons and their families means encouraging members of the congregation to send letters, volunteer for life-skill mentoring in correctional facilities, and identify (not necessarily provide) housing, employment, and education that “returning citizens” may need.

Notice the unique reference here to “returning citizens” rather than to “ex-cons.” The emphasis is on what one is rather than what one was. And this is where the civil rights focus comes in. To use the term “returning citizen” emphasizes that the civil rights of those who have paid their debt to society should be recognized. And that means working to change laws that, for example, restrict voting rights or deny job opportunities to returning citizens. (In Florida, returning citizens are barred from 40 percent of all jobs.)

Returning citizens are members of civil society, and in Healing Communities they are members of church families that offer pastoral care as well as tangible deliverables such as housing, employment, and education. Perkins’ group seeks to uphold and strengthen the civil rights of returning citizens by encountering them first as members of their flocks.

Some estimate that 70 percent of all congregations in the United States have at least one family with an incarcerated member. “It’s the civil rights issue of the 21st century,” as Perkins says.

—Harold Dean Trulear, Professor of Practical Theology
    Howard University Divinity School


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”