Collateral Consequences: Why “Serving Time” Is Only Half of the Story

Imagine a man named Joe. He is 20 years old and lives in Michigan. Joe commits a misdemeanor. It doesn’t matter which one. For the sake of this story, pick any one you wish. Let’s imagine that Joe is caught, convicted, and is incarcerated for a time.  According to our system of justice he has paid his debt to society and thus returns to his community as a free citizen.  Right?


That is not our current system.  And Joe’s story is far from over. There is an overwhelming number of other consequences he will face; most of these he will carry for the rest of his life. Some have called this our system of “punishment in perpetuity.”  If you want an accurate picture of Joe’s story you must also imagine that when he returns to his community he can’t do any of the following:

  • Become a notary public.
  • Work in the sheriff’s department.
  • Establish a cemetery.
  • Operate a child care organization.
  • Be a pharmacist.
  • Be employed in an adult foster care community.
  • Teach driver’s education.

Collateral Consequences

That’s right.  If 20 year old Joe committed a petty burglary or was caught with a small amount of marijuana or any other misdemeanor, then 50 year old Joe cannot teach driver’s education.  This is not because his crime had anything to do with his ability to drive or teach youth how to obey traffic laws. These are referred to as “collateral consequences” and there are literally thousands of them.  For any misdemeanor.  Imagine if Joe had committed a felony.

There are so many of these ‘perpetual punishments’ that the government finally put together a comprehensive database to help the public keep track of it all.  I recommend taking a quick look at this site to get a sense of the enormous obstacles that confront returning citizens.  Many Americans have no concept of the scale we’re dealing with.  Being aware of the existence of these consequences might be the first step in healing this broken system.

And it is certainly broken.  Our current system is a far cry from our ideals of proportionate punishment, let alone restorative justice. Most crimes should not carry a list of 1,000 collateral consequences.  But many do.  And the insurmountable hurdles that Joe faces are punishment for an act he did in the past and take no account of the man Joe is today.  In a way, we make people come home wearing scarlet letters.  The one most of us do know about is the “Have You Ever Been Convicted of a Felony?” box that is found on almost all employment applications Some people are tackling this head on in ‘ban the box campaigns’.  But there are even circumstances in which someone might be legally obligated to disclose that they were arrested, even when it did not result in a conviction.  Christians, as people formed and defined by grace, should be upset by this.

The really pressing question is this: Do we want Joe to succeed?  No one denies that people should be held accountable for their crimes or that some deserve to stay in the prison system for a lifetime.  But the reality is that 95% will come home.  They will return to be parents and neighbors and employees.  And reentry, by its very nature, is full of daunting trials: reconnecting with broken families, establishing positive habits in relationships and employment, and finding networks of support outside of the destructive influences of one’s past.  Punitive collateral consequences are heaped on top of this already perilous social situation. Do we really expect returning citizens to rebuild their lives in a world that is so against them?  Should we be surprised when so many fail?

The Church is in a Great Place to Help  

Churches are groups of people who should understand the power of second chances. They are places where a myriad of skills meet mighty compassion.  They are intimately connected to their communities.  Therefore, they should be in a unique position to help returning citizens gain the support they need to tackle the tough road ahead.  What can churches do? 

Ask and listen. 

We begin by talking to families affected by incarceration and come along side returning citizens.  Listening and inclusion can be powerful in breaking the cycles of shame and failure that surround so many of our neighbors.  Many returning citizens need the stability or new community, advocates for employment, and a second pair of eyes to navigate this complicated system.  Churches can do that.  And they do not have to reinvent the wheel.  Look in your local cities and states for organizations that already have reentry programs and find out how you can support them.

As with almost all issues of justice, this one will not be solved by goodwill alone.  Policies need to change.  That change can begin as we oppose the fear that has been allowed to drive our political discourse.  We are afraid that our world is getting less safe.  And we are afraid that removing anything punitive from our laws will endanger us.  Both of these fears are patently untrue.  But we, the public, have been afraid and our representatives have responded with decades of failed criminal policy.  We have the difficult task of challenging our leaders to confront the failure of ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric.  And we can offer our public support to political strategies that have the courage to clean up our system of justice.  There are signs of hope for this in my home state of Michigan and at the federal level.  Legislators are not exactly showing bold courage, but they are taking some necessary first steps in finding truly bipartisan ways forward.

There are thousands of collateral consequences.  But there are also thousands of ways to reshape our system in the image of justice and mercy.  Let us be the people of second chances.  

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.