Les Miserables, criminal justice reform and the ripple effect of grace

By Patrick Purtill

The 30th anniversary of the opening of Les Miserables on Broadwa — Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil's musical theatre masterpiece — has arrived. Based on Victor Hugo's mammoth 1862 novel of the same name, it is one of the world's most popular musicals. Over 70 million people worldwide have seen it, resulting in a profit of over $2.6 billion dollars.

It is especially popular here in America: a revival that ran on Broadway from 2014 to 2016 made more than $109 million and its star-studded 2012 incarnation on the big screen was both a critical and popular hit. Our country loves the tale of revolution, romance and redemption—but have we learned its central lesson?

The story follows the life of Jean Valjean, a convict sentenced to 19 years of hard labor for petty robbery. After his release, he fails to find work, turned away from honest employment because of the yellow ticket that indicates his status as an ex-convict. As he leaves, he is mocked by Inspector Javert—a draconian villain whose core belief that "Men like [Valjean] can never change" drives him to dog Valjean's steps throughout the musical.

So callous does Valjean become that when the kindly Bishop of Digne takes him in for the night, he steals the bishop's silver dinnerware and runs off. He is immediately apprehended and taken back to the bishop—and their encounter changes the course of his life.

The bishop waves off the police and tells them the silver was a gift—and then presents Valjean with silver candlesticks as well. "But remember this my brother," he sings, "see in this some higher plan/You must use this precious silver/To become an honest man/By the witness of the martyrs/By the passion and the blood/I have raised you out of darkness/I have bought your soul for God."

This, all within the first five minutes of the musical, is its turning point. The bishop's act of radical trust and generosity embodies the central theme of the musical: "To love another person is to see the face of God." It empowers Valjean to live a life of virtue and mercy himself. The rest of the nearly three-hour run time is just Valjean striving, amidst the grimy, violent streets of Paris, to live a life worthy of the calling he has received.

The bishop's example presents our country with a challenge: How have we treated our ex-offenders? How have we met them at this turning point—this moment of grace? Do we see the face of God on our ex-offenders?

So far, the answer is a decided "no." The National Institute of Justice shared a study that tracked over 400,000 prisoners from 30 states after their release in 2005. Of these prisoners, two-thirds were rearrested in three years, three quarters were re-arrested in five years, and over half were re-arrested within one year.

Americans might love a creative and powerful redemption story on stage or on screen, but where were we when these prisoners decided to reoffend? These statistics speak poorly for our willingness to come alongside and help others realize the redemption they deserve.

This choice has a cost: it puts a huge dent in American pocketbooks and does horrifying damage to American families. Our country spends $80 billion on corrections yearly, which breaks down to about $260 per taxpayer. Blacks are incarcerated at 7 times the rate of whites, and one of every nine black children has had at least one parent behind bars.

There is, however, a growing movement for change—and, as is so often the way with grace, it comes from the places and people from whom we would least expect it. Red states have lead the way on criminal justice reform through smart policies: Texas has closed three prisons and Georgia produced a 20 percent reduction in black incarceration rates.

And pairs like Rand Paul and Cory Brooker and John Cornyn and Sheldon Whitehouse have found themselves strange bedfellows in the fight for fair laws. The former pair developed the REDEEM Act, which erases the records of certain nonviolent and juvenile offenders so as to give them a fair chance in their hunt for gainful employment. The latter pair developed the CORRECTIONS Act, a bill that incentivizes low and medium-risk inmates to join recidivism reduction programs with time off of their sentences.

The most effective programs of all, however, are those like the one currently in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola. The program, known as the "Re-entry court," prepares inmates to transition back into society through holistic rehabilitation. Lifers who have gone through the prison's in-house seminary provide spiritual counsel to program participants.

The lifers also give their participants the "silver" they need "to become an honest man": they train participants in fields like auto repair, welding, and food service. The program actively seeks out partner businesses to hire the inmates, so all participants leave with a job offer. Out of 33 who have completed the program, only one has returned to prison.

Perry Stagg, an assistant warden at the prison, has testified to the transformation the program brings. "This is a program here where we have the opportunity to change lives. If we hadn't changed who they are, they would be out there committing more crimes, which would be creating more victims," he said. "Every time we get one of these guys out of here successfully, it's like throwing a rock in a pond and watching the ripples go out—how many lives we could possibly changing."

This ripple effect is the message of Les Miserables: the renewed Valjean extends grace to the prostitute Fantine, to her daughter Cossette, to the student Marius, and even to Javert. But it is also the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The rippling of grace can span millennia and continents and penetrate the hardest and most hateful of hearts. But it can only do so through strong spiritual leadership—the kind of leadership that crosses economic, racial, and political divides to bring Christ's message of hope and change.

During his 2015 visit to the United States, Pope Francis brought this message to a group of inmates in Philadelphia. "Let us look to Jesus," the Pope exhorted them. "He comes to save us from the lie that says no one can change. He helps us to journey along the paths of life and fulfillment. May the power of his love and his resurrection always be a path leading you to new life."

Les Miserables shows us what happens when one man rejects this lie and receives the grace that alone can enable change. As a nation, we are desperately in need of such grace. Thousands of lives are destroyed by the lie of Javert's condemnation every day. We must hope, pray and fight that this grace—rippling, roaring, redeeming—can empower us to tell a new story.

Patrick Purtill serves as the Director of Legislative Affairs at Faith & Freedom Coalition.