“When I was in prison….”: Our Faith and the Criminal Justice System
March 2015. This month Sandy Sorensen, Director of our UCC Washington Office, looks at our criminal justice system, our call to stand with those in prison, and the momentum building for change.
Deeply connected to the recently renewed dialogue about the criminal justice system and the pressing need to address the reality of mass incarceration are issues at the core of our faith tradition. Our understandings of justice, healing, restoration, reconciliation, redemption and transformation are important spiritual resources for us as we wrestle with these issues. Indeed, as people of faith, we are called to this conversation in a significant way, on multiple levels of systemic change, public policy change and individual change.
The teachings of the Gospel particularly challenge us to engage these realities in ways that take us beyond the surface and into true encounter with Jesus. In Matthew we hear Jesus proclaiming, “When I was in prison, you visited me.” It is easy to glide past these words, but their import is powerful.
“When I was in prison, you visited me.”
In the lives and faces of those who fall into the criminal justice system, we encounter Christ. Even in the midst of profound brokenness. We are challenged to seek out the image of God in in this complex and challenging context. We cannot enter the conversation at arms-length. As followers of Jesus, we are called to be present in jail cells, courtrooms, booking rooms, prison yards and detention centers as ambassadors of healing, restoration and justice.
Why does the UCC work to address injustice in our criminal justice system?
Throughout its history, the witness of the United Church of Christ General Synod reflects a faithful and prophetic engagement with this faith calling. This witness has taken many forms, addressing key dimensions of the justice system, including alternative sentencing and restorative justice practices, addressing race and class bias in arrests and sentencing, opposing excessive bail and inadequate legal representation, calls for increased awareness of prison conditions and practices such as solitary confinement and the growth of the private prison industry.
The socioeconomic context of these policy statements precedes and than tracks the process of mass incarceration that has led to an inmate population in excess of 2.3 million people in the United States, with an additional five to six million persons on probation and parole. With about five percent of the world’s population, the United States holds nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. There are more African Americans in jail, prison, under the supervision of the courts or on parole at this time in our history than there were enslaved in 1850. One in every 32 adults in the United States is under the authority of the criminal justice system – the highest rate of any country in the world. The impact of this reality extends beyond the individuals who are incarcerated to their families and communities. Ultimately, we all bear the costs.
Opportunities for change
In a time of sharp partisan division and political gridlock, it is notable that criminal justice reform measures offer one of the few openings for bipartisan cooperation and meaningful change in our public policy. Adding to this momentum , the renewed dialogue and debate about police conduct in the deaths of Michael Brown in St. Louis, Eric Garner in Staten Island and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, have drawn renewed attention to race and class disparities in police practices and the criminal justice system.
Members of Congress are reaching across the aisles and partisan differences in the hope of finding a meaningful way forward. Such efforts are reflected in pending legislation that has significant bipartisan support, such as the REDEEM Act (Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment), cosponsored by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) which would help formerly incarcerated individuals find jobs, the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would address excessive sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, and a bill cosponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) that would allow eligible prisoners to reduce their time by engaging in employment and education opportunities. There are also proposals for improving approaches to juvenile justice and prevention programs.
Now is the time
The energy gathering around this important issue is impressive. A range of faith-based and secular civil rights advocacy organizations including the National Council of Churches, the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference and the NAACP have named the reality of mass incarceration of priority concern for their work. In April, the annual Ecumenical Advocacy Days conference in Washington, DC will engage the issue of mass incarceration and systems of injustice. (We hope you can join us there!) The upcoming UCC General Synod in June will consider resolutions calling for criminal justice reform and an end to the spiral of mass incarceration. And a number of notable bipartisan coalitions have emerged to address the need for criminal justice reform, including the Center for Public Safety, an unusual coalition that spans the political spectrum to include the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform and Freedom Works.
We find ourselves at a pivotal moment in public policy advocacy around criminal justice reform. Although there is not uniform agreement about the causes of mass incarceration and the measures that are needed to restore a broken criminal justice system, there is significant agreement around measures that would address racial bias and sentencing disparities, racial profiling, the militarization of police forces, police practices, and inadequate prevention and reentry programs and resources for assisting those returning to their communities from incarceration to rebuild their lives and that of their communities. Advocates are also re-engaging the policy debate about the broader context of criminal justice reform, including economic, educational and health care disparities and their impact on rates of incarceration.
It has been said that reconciliation begins with God and is worked out on earth – the challenge of restoring justice to the criminal justice system is before us and the time for action is now.