Last week nearly 500 people filled St. Philip’s Church in Harlem to hear Bryan Stevenson, lawyer, activist and author of the New York Times bestseller Just Mercy speak against racial injustice and class bias in America’s criminal justice system. “You judge the character of a community by how it treats the poor, disenfranchised, and condemned,” he said. The United States incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any other country, a practice he traced to the 1970’s and 80’s War on Drugs and to a political narrative rooted in fear and anger. He also described the “collateral consequences” of mass incarceration, as 25% of African American children are at risk of having a father in prison.
In addition, Stevenson addressed the issue of children prosecuted as adults. Fourteen states have no minimum age at which someone can be tried as an adult, resulting in 10-year olds with 20 to 30-year sentences and 13 and 14-year olds sentenced to life. New York is one of two states that prosecute all 16 and 17-year olds as adults.
He called on attendees to “change the narrative,” about race and to advocate with the New York State legislature to raise the age at which youth are put into the adult criminal justice system.
The event – #KnowJusticeHarlem – was organized by Circles of Support, a program which brings together faith and community partners to help people coming home from prison stay home. “It excites me that you have come together to begin this conversation,” Stevenson said. He challenged attendees to “be willing to do uncomfortable things” to support people returning home from prison as well as their children and families.
Organizers described several ways congregations can assist:
- Invite a speaker to tell the story of his or her involvement in the criminal justice system
- Hold a sock and underwear drive for people who have been recently released
- Accompany parolees home from prison and welcome them back to the community
- Accompany parolees to appointments, e.g. job interviews: giving moral support
- Support parolees’ relationships with their children: create a kid-friendly play space that these parents can enjoy with their children, offer tutoring or other schoolwork assistance, provide child care when fathers or mothers have court dates or other appointments
- Assist with job-readiness: mock interviews, resumes, networking
- Hold support groups (and provide child care) for parents or partners of returning parolees
- Organize outings for families or host a community meal
Episcopal Charities currently funds three outreach programs addressing criminal justice issues: Hudson Link, which provides people in prison with the opportunity to pursue a college education and is sponsored by Christ’s Church Rye, Family Connections at the Nyack Center, which supports families who are separated due to incarceration, sponsored by Grace Church Nyack, and Thursday Hospitality, which provides a ministry of presence to people meeting their parole officers at the Harlem Community Justice Center, sponsored by St. Philip’s. Call us to explore funding opportunities for similar programs through your congregation.