“Your perspectives on people convicted of violent crimes and sex offenses might change when they sit next to you in the pew. ”
This project will explore the ways that sustained personal encounters with formerly incarcerated people in congregations might dispel the misconceptions and fears that currently prevent bolder, more broad-based efforts to end mass incarceration. Most criminal justice reform advocates, including those in churches, often explicitly promise that the reforms they support will not allow people convicted of violent crimes and sex offenses to be released from prison. This narrative often falsely implies that people who fall into these categories remain dangerous forever when many are statistically unlikely to commit such acts in the future. Churches in North America have the theological and historical resources to encourage a better understanding of the most marginalized and maligned incarcerated people, but it is unclear how Christian ideals actually affect perspectives on criminal justice policy. Focusing on the experiences of two formerly incarcerated individuals and their Louisiana congregations, this ethnographic study will examine what happens to congregants’ perspectives on this issue when people convicted of violent crimes and sex offenses join their churches. Illuminating stories such as these will help us understand what is necessary for churches to become leaders of a more comprehensive, inclusive movement for criminal justice reform.