Edited by T. Lai
It is a joy to serve as pastor of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Marin City, a church with a strong and long tradition of social justice and caring for the community. The congregation has been involved in housing issues, the Civil Rights movement, and it was instrumental in creating the National Presbyterian Church’s defense fund for Angela Davis. Now we literally wear our tradition with intention and pride on our current congregational T-shirts, which have images of the Black Lives Matter movement! As a community, we have doggedly persevered in rising to meet the recurring challenges of institutional change and individual reclamation.
On Thursday, February 17, St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, in collaboration with the Marin County Public Defender’s office, Health and Human Services, the Marin County District Attorney’s Office and the Marin County Probation Department is launching the Clean Slate program to addresses inequity and injustice on an individual and systemic level.
The United States penal system has systematically and continuously hurt people who were innocent. Crimes have real victims and so too does our justice and legal system. The war on drugs, three-strike legislation, and many of the current immigration laws have been unequally enforced by policy and in practice. On death row, there are people who have been erroneously sentenced. We know that mistakes have been and are made, both intentionally and unintentionally. However, the worst and most crippling of these mistakes are not mistakes at all. They are mistakes of policy based on fear and in opposition to the facts. This results in people with records that can often be undeservedly harsh and incredibly hard to correct.
Laws and policies are not self-correcting. They are reactive to the hard work of advocates, like the St. Andrew Presbyterian community, striving and straining towards peace and justice. The State of California has addressed some of the more glaring attributions of crippling charges to the records of people that were either overcharged or have served their time and have had to bear the stigma of crimes for which they have served their time. Criminal records can be economically crippling and consequently add to the rate of recidivism.
It is, therefore, a matter of great joy to see the County addressing the lingering repercussions of bad policies, unjust applications of the law, or ignorance about legal options to expunge one’s record. These agencies and entities, that are indeed deserving of great scrutiny and criticism when warranted, should be praised for proactively correcting or addressing past and present harms.
The justice system should not be institutionalized meanness. In a season of oppositional politics, it is refreshing to see people of differing political persuasions coming together and agreeing that people ought to be treated fairly and that justice is about accountability and restoration, not about uninterrupted demonization, or a continuous label of criminality on a person’s life.
So, on February 17, when you pass by the parking lot of Saint Andrew Presbyterian Church in Marin City, you will see people working for justice with grace! This is the hope that is borne in the marches and protests--that real change happens, that institutions address past harms, and that people who were pushed into the margins are invited back to the middle. This is the hope of the gospel of my faith, and I believe the universal hope of all people who would recognize and celebrate human decency and kindness.