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January 24, 2014

The Value of Work

I was recently struck by an event that has the press of my home state—and the nation—buzzing with news of scandal. Highlighting Wisconsin’s improving economy, in his State of the State speech Governor Scott Walker publicly acknowledged a number of workers, including Chris Barber, a welder whose superior performance as a seasonal worker led his employer to offer him a permanent job.  Cool, right?

Apparently not. An “expose” by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel revealed on Wednesday that Barber is “a registered sex offender with two felonies and three drunken-driving offenses.” When confronted with information about Barber’s criminal record, Governor Walker’s spokesman quickly replied that, “[o]bviously, if we had been aware of this individual's prior convictions, he would not have been invited to participate.” That disclaimer did not stop the state’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Mary Burke, from publicly stating that she found it “disappointing that the governor isn't vetting people who he's holding up as folks we should look up to.”

Criticizing political candidates for having any association, however remote, with convicted individuals isn’t new, and it certainly isn’t partisan. Ever since Michael Dukakis’s presidential aspirations were crushed by his (extraordinarily tenuous) connection to the furlough of Massachusetts murderer Willie Horton, American politicians have avoided all association with criminals, prisoners, and parolees. Often, they have often refused to back legislation or programs that assist such individuals in moving on with their lives after their sentences have ended. Doing so is just too risky. After all, it’s not a coincidence that U.S.A. Today’s coverage of the Wisconsin “scandal” ends by observing that “Walker is considered a potential 2016 presidential candidate.”

What does any of that have to do with law and Catholic thought? A lot, actually. The aftermath of Walker’s shout out to Barker demonstrates that the political process offers slim protection—and precious little consideration—to those who have been convicted of criminal offenses. Rather than celebrate Mr. Barber’s move from prison to full-time, gainful employment, leaders on both sides of the political spectrum are suggesting he is undeserving of recognition—and perhaps even of opportunity.

However offensive Barber’s past conduct may be, the impulse to shun him in perpetuity runs directly counter to Catholic teaching, with its dual emphasis on accountability and reintegration for those who transgress the law. In their seminal statement on criminal justice, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops emphasized that “[j]ust as God never abandons us, so too we must be in covenant with one another. We are all sinners, and our response to sin and failure should not be abandonment and despair, but rather justice, contrition, reparation and return or reintegration of all into the community.” Reintegration has as an essential component access to meaningful labor.

Work is central to our human existence, and the Church has spoken clearly about the dignity and value of labor. In Caritas in Veritae, Pope Benedict observed that “unemployment today provokes new forms of economic marginalization, and the current [economic] crisis can only make this situation worse. Being out of work or dependent on public or private assistance for a prolonged period undermines the freedom and creativity of the person and his family and social relationships, causing great psychological and spiritual suffering.” That marginalization and suffering are particularly acute for those who also bear the stigma of past criminal conviction. Having been punished by their own conduct and by the formal criminal justice system, individuals re-entering society struggle to establish healthy social connections, contribute to their families’ economic well-being, and “make good” by engaging in legitimate labor markets.

 Finding work when you have a felony record isn’t easy. Federal non-discrimination laws offer only minimal protection to those with criminal records, and state laws frequently prohibit individuals with past convictions from obtaining licenses even for entry-level jobs like driving buses or cutting hair. When people like Chris Barber find a job and succeed at it, they should be lauded. If our leaders are not willing or able to publicly acknowledge the accomplishments of men and women who are on the path to full reintegration, then something has gone wrong. As people of faith, we need to demand more.  

Posted by Cecelia Klingele on January 24, 2014 at 04:28 PM | Permalink