Mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion.― Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.—Luke 4:18,19
Part of my Lenten discipline this year has been to serve as a volunteer tax preparer at The Cooperative Ministry, an organization devoted to helping people achieve a basic level of financial stability. It has been a humbling experience. Each day, I meet working people, struggling to make ends meet, and I can help save them some money, get their tax refunds and credits and I hope, make their spring just a lit bit brighter. Today, though, was different.
Today, I was assigned to prepare the tax returns of incarcerated women. Prisoners, working behind bars, who are given the opportunity to develop real world skills in a job that pays actual wages. The reality is that they are paid very little money by the companies holding contracts with the Department of Corrections and then they are crushed by the very system that I supposed to be teaching them that work pays. You see, one of the credits that the working poor are supposed to get is the Earned Income Tax Credit, a program started by Ronald Reagan to help increase the paltry wages they make. But, our punitive approach to criminal justice not only allows companies to make a hefty profit off prison labor, but, then takes back one of the tiny scraps of assistance that our nation gives to working people who are not behind bars. You see, prisoners do not qualify for the EITC.
If they were performing the very same job on the outside they would be eligible for a tax credit that could move them a little higher on the economic ladder. But we want sacrifice, not mercy. I had to go through each one of those returns and check the box that says: “This return does not qualify for the Earned Income Credit.” With each return I prepared, my stomach churned and my head hurt.
At the end of the day, I felt like I had been mugged. I know that they are convicted criminals and I know that they are imprisoned for breaking the law. I also know that they are human beings, worthy of dignity and respect. The system we call “criminal justice” does the opposite of that. It practically guarantees that justice will not apply. We should call it the “criminal punishment system,” and quit pretending it’s anything other than that.
I came home to a nice, warm, dry house, with two dogs and a partner who loves me. They went back to their cells. America saved a few bucks that it can use to shoot missiles at people from flying robots, in countries where suffering is the way people live. That’s not justice, that’s just punishment.