What if "Les Miserables" was Set in 2013?

fantine and valjeanThe Academy celebrated Les Miserables stars Hugh Jackman (nominated for his role of Jean Valjean) and Anne Hathaway (winner of Best Supporting Actress for playing Fantine) last night for their depictions of a Formerly Incarcerated Person and a sex worker. As someone who works with Formerly Incarcerated Persons at Voice Of The Ex-offender, I got to thinking – What would a Les Miserables set in 2013 look like? There are 2.3 million Americans in prison today, and 65 million Jean Valjeans in the United States – people who have convictions or arrests in their past, and continue to face the consequences. An estimated 30% of the U.S. adult population has a criminal record on file with a state. 

So who would Jean Valjean be today?

  • Instead of being arrested for stealing bread, the Jean Valjean of 2013 would be arrested on drug charges (most likely for possession rather than sales, and for marijuana rather than other narcotics). 500,000 people are now incarcerated for drug crimes in the United States, a 12-fold increase since 1981.
  • Jean Valjean of 2013 would likely be Black. Today, 1 million out of the 2.3 million incarcerated people in the U.S. are African Americans. More than 60% of people in prisons are people of color. This racial disparity is directly linked to the web of policies and practices known as the “War on Drugs,” which targets African Americans for mass incarceration. Despite having equal or lesser rates of selling and using drugs, in some states Black men are incarcerated for drugs crimes at a rate up to 57 times higher than white men.
  • Just as the original Valjean’s papers marked him a dangerous man for life, Valjean of 2013 would face huge barriers to employment as a Formerly Incarcerated Person. On most job applications he would have to check a box saying he’d been arrested or charged with a crime, effectively barring him. He would face bans on professional licenses and certification, blocking him from becoming a nurse or a football coach. He would have limited access to job sites that require security clearance, such as docks and shipping areas. 
He could try to access expungement, a process designed to help people access employment and other tools on the path to reentry, but it is expensive, legally complicated, inaccessible and applies only to the narrowest margin of people, usually first time offenders for very minor crimes.
  • As Valjean of Les Miserables was pushed into homeless,  Valjean of 2013 would find his drug charge bars him from living in public housing or accessing a number of state and federal programs, including financial aid for college.
  • While Hugh Jackman’s Valjean could shed his past and become Mayor (accessing his white privilege), the Valjean of 2013 lives in a society where Black = Criminal, and would continue to be profiled and harassed by police. In New Orleans, young people participating in organizations like BreakOUT! and Fyre Youth Squad say they're treated as criminals regardless of whether they break the law. Recently undercover police attacked a couple of teenagers who appeared to be doing absolutely nothing but being young Black men in the French Quarter on Mardi Gras.
  • Today’s Jean Valjean could be a woman. Since 2000, the rate of incarceration of women has increased at double the rate of their male counterparts. While no one is trying to burn Anne Hathaway at the stake (except perhaps for that dress, ugh!) there has been a witch hunt in the state of Louisiana that has caught up mostly African American women, charged with a felony offense for prostitution, marking them as “sex offenders” and forcing them register as such and wear the scarlet letter of “sex offender” across their driver’s licenses and state issued IDs. While this egregious disparity has been found to be unconstitutional the courts and the legislature have not made it apply to every person who has suffered this injustice. Many continue to have to pay exorbitant registration fees, be barred from living within a certain number of feet from a school or day care, and report to a prison or jail if there is an order to evacuate in the case of a natural disaster.

There are literally millions of real-life Jean Valjeans in our midst – people suffering a punishment that does not fit the crime and who are living with the stigma of incarceration years after they have completed their sentences.

Just one Gulf Coast example is the Scott sisters, two African American women who were given life sentences for allegedly stealing $11 in Mississippi. While the two sisters’ sentences were suspended and they were released in 2011, they are required to be on parole for the rest of their lives.

We’re not as removed from the injustices and inhumanity faced by The Miserables Ones as we might wish. And to what end? This system has little resemblance to justice. And it certainly doesn’t reduce crime or violence  – Despite the fact that the United States spends over $51 Billion annually and arrested 1.7 million people for non-violent drug offenses in 2009 (more than half of which were for marijuana possession), people continue to buy, and sell and use drugs, now at higher rates than when the war on drugs began.

Les Miserables made American audiences fall in love with a criminal and a sex worker, and showed the inhumanity of a “justice” system driven by punishment – by using Hollywood paragons of whiteness to tell the story. Audiences clearly see the crimes of Hugh Jackman’s Valjean and Anne Hathaway’s Fantine as understandable, if not downright noble, survival tactics each was driven to out of poverty and injustice. But will we, as a society, extend that same love and understanding to the millions of “criminals” amongst us – especially when they are Black and Brown people that our nation has treated as inhuman and unlovable from its birth? Are we prepared to turn a critical eye on our own “justice” system, and see that its core function is maintaining white supremacy rather than reducing violence?

While the United States is filled with Valjeans and Fantines, we’re also filled with Inspector Javerts – people of good conscience, who value law, order and morality, but who cause persecution through our misguided sense of justice and twisted view of our fellow humans. When, at the end of Les Miserables, Javert is confronted with the criminal Valjean’s enduring goodness, and the limitations of the Inspector’s own sense of justice, the contradiction drives him to suicide. But it is my hope that the Javerts among us in the United States can choose a less destructive path when confronted with our own contradictions – that collectively we can transform our understanding of justice, and the criminal justice system to serve a vision of humanity, non-violence, wholeness (individual and collective), and reconciliation.

Written with Ada McMahon.
Rosana Cruz is Associate Director of VOTE (Voice Of The Ex-offender). Previously Rosana worked with Safe Streets/Strong Communities and the National Immigration Law Center. Prior to joining NILC, she worked with SEIU1991 in Miami, after having been displaced from New Orleans by Katrina. Before the storm, Rosana worked for a diverse range of community organizations, including the Latin American Library, Hispanic Apostolate, the Lesbian and Gay Community Center of New Orleans, and People's Youth Freedom School. Rosana came to New Orleans through her work with the Southern Regional Office of Amnesty International in Atlanta.