Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Unseen

Thanks for the warm welcome, Rick (and for the blast-from-the-past reminder of my short-lived acting career). As a long-time MoJ follower, it’s a real treat to make my blogging debut here.

I’m the mom of a newborn, so I am a little behind on everything. It was just this week that I finally sat down and read Evangelii Gaudium (rather than media summaries of it).  The exhortation is a treasure trove for reflection, but what struck me most was the Pope’s discussion of our Christian duty to care for those who are especially vulnerable and worthy of concern. He includes in that category “the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned,” as well as migrants, victims of human trafficking and domestic violence, and the unborn.

All of those identified share a common plight: by virtue of their position in the world, they are largely unseen by those with the power to alleviate their suffering, whether by offering direct charity or by changing the social systems that enable them to remain isolated. It is their marginalization that makes them vulnerable—hidden from view, their suffering is easily overlooked, even by those of goodwill. It is easy to ignore them, or even to become “comfortabl[y] and silent[ly] complicit” in their exploitation.

There is another group of people the Pope didn’t include on his list, but might have. They aren’t as sympathetic as babies or the elderly or refugees, but they are every bit as invisible: those who have been convicted of crimes. Whether shut away from sight behind walls and bars, or shut out of civic life by virtue of lifelong collateral consequences, those who are prosecuted for their crimes (because we all commit crimes—more on that another day) pay a price that leaves them as vulnerable to exploitation and despair as the victims of trafficking and domestic violence that the Pope rightfully identifies. (And of course, “victim” and “offender” are often fluid categories.) Complicating the predicament of the convicted, and adding to their isolation, is the fact that, as the Pope observes, “the current model, with its emphasis on success and self-reliance, does not appear to favour an investment in efforts to help the slow, the weak or the less talented to find opportunities in life.” No kidding.

Making the burdens prisoners bear more visible is no easy job. An ongoing effort to catalog the the collateral consequences of criminal conviction suggests that every felony offense carries with it hundreds (and in some cases nearly a thousand) civil restrictions, affecting everything from the right to vote to the ability to secure basic employment. Many of these restrictions last years, and some endure for a lifetime. The volume of collateral consequences is so great, and their codification so haphazard, that lawyers are often unable to identify the full effects of conviction in any given case—a fact that the Supreme Court noted in its 2010 decision in Padilla v. Kentucky,and one that emphasizes the invisibility of the weight convicted individuals shoulder as they struggle to reintegrate into the full life of their communities.

In the next few months, I hope to discuss a few of the ways laws exacerbate—and might help remedy—the vulnerability of those who have been convicted of crimes. I look forward to joining the conversation.


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