The Common Good

Why We Need Criminal Justice Reform

The nearly 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons and jails accounts for 25 percent of the world's incarcerated, and, as Michelle Alexander points out in her book, The New Jim Crow, the rapid growth of the prison population in the last 30 years is largely due to the failed war on drugs. Locking up minor drug offenders for long prison terms is not only ineffective -- it is inhumane. Though Congress finally acted in 2010 (in a bipartisan fashion thanks to Senator Durbin and senator sessions) by limiting the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, the criminal justice system in the United States remains far from just.

The mass incarceration of mostly poor and African American people reflects the sins of God's people in scripture. Throughout scripture, God continually rebukes the wealthy and the powerful for withholding justice from the vulnerable. Biblical justice is achieved through legally restoring those wrongfully accused and inclusively creating the opportunity for equal justice for those marginalized. Rather than a means of harsh punishment, God intends justice to be a healing balm to all of society (Exodus 23:6-8; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17 and 16:19-20). The prophets Amos and Isaiah specifically point out that in utilizing the judicial system as a means to secure power only for the affluent and to keep the poor and marginalized trapped in a perpetual underclass, the powerful are in direct opposition to God's intentions for justice (Isaiah 1:21-23; 5:20-23; Amos 2:6-8; 5:7, 10-13).

Even just a glance at the U.S. criminal justice system shows extreme brokenness:

  • The U.S. prison industry is one of the fastest growing, spending more than $60 billion a year on corrections.
  • Two-thirds of those incarcerated are African-American or Latino, and if current trends continue, one-in-three African American males and one-in-six Latino males born today will serve time in prison in the United States.
  • Most incarcerated women were first survivors of violence, are disproportionately African-American or Latina and, at the time of arrest, earned an income of less than $15,000.

The current brokenness in our criminal justice system reveals a justice system in direct opposition to biblical justice. As people of faith we cannot abide an ever-growing justice system characterized by a targeting of the poor and inherent racism.

Instead, religious bodies across the theological and political spectrum are calling for change. Some changes that could make the justice system more restorative include:

  • Restoration of impacted communities, victims of crime, the families of the incarcerated, and those currently and formerly imprisoned;
  • Greater emphasis on prevention as a way to reduce drug abuse and crime and thereby establish safer communities;
  • Personal responsibility and accountability for those responsible for committing acts of crime;
  • Compassion for all people coming out of prison who should be given a second chance so that their families and communities will be strengthened;
  • Equality for racial minorities that have been unfairly targeted through racial profiling and sentencing disparities, as well as access to quality defense counsel;
  • Respect for the integrity, safety, and rights of the imprisoned.

Your church or faith community can sign on in support of this statement and urge President Obama and the Congress to reforming the criminal justice system a priority. Our goal must be to transform the U.S. criminal justice system until it reflects the true intentions of biblical justice: to bring healing to the world.

Bill Mefford is the Director of Civil and Human Rights for the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church. He is a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and is based in Washington, D.C.

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