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Criminal or Prisoner?

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Eve Tushnet on the debt of care we owe to both.

I’ve been writing as if we all know where we stand in these parables, but in fact each of us slides along the spectrum from complicit stone-thrower to caught adulteress. None of us are law-abiding citizens. As Catholic, libertarian writer Timothy P. Carney has noted, in an over-regulated society “We’re all criminals.” I’ve committed a few different kinds of drug- and alcohol-related crimes, as well as crimes of property damage and vandalism, trespassing, and attempting to carry a weapon onto an airplane; and those are only the crimes I remember. (Ask me about the "Great Bagel Knife Terror" of 2003.)  The worst legal consequence I suffered was a fine and a couple years of special screening at airports, but that’s because I’m rich, white, and catastrophically lucky.

Meanwhile those of us who weren’t so lucky, who are viewed by others as criminals, often seek to separate ourselves from some other, worse sinner. “Sure, I did some time, I made some bad choices. But I never killed anybody!" "I’m totally not an adulteress!"—as if being an upstanding stone-thrower is better.

I have a lot of policy or action-item type recommendations when it comes to prison: reduce the number of crimes on the books and the penalties for nonviolent crimes, so that far fewer people go to prison and spend much less time there; encourage employers to give people coming out of prison a second look and a second chance for employment rather than round-filing their applications as soon as they check the box for criminal history, and expand “restorative justice” programs which seek to allow criminals (especially, but not only, the young and the non-violent) to make amends directly to their victims and to the broader community. That’s just for starters.

But regardless of your opinion of the policy questions, Christians can offer America a deeply countercultural vision of prisoners as people whose spiritual freedom and human dignity are of infinite importance, prisoners as people to whom everyone outside the prison walls owes an especial debt of care and love: Prisoners, regardless of the wrongs they may have committed, are Christ.

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at Patheos and has written for Commonweal, USA Today and the Weekly Standard, among other publications. Her book, "Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith," is forthcoming from Ave Maria Press in Fall 2014.

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