Criminal Justice

Demonic Drums, Transgender Housing, and 8 Other Quotables from Our June Issue

Image via tovovan/shutterstock.com
Image via tovovan/shutterstock.com

It’s hard to overlook the peppy pink pig who appeared on the cover of our June issue, but maybe you missed the lyrical beauty of Senior Associate Editor Julie Polter’s review of Sufjan Stevens’ newest album, or Eboo Patel’s surprising lesson on what Thomas Jefferson’s 1764 copy of Islam’s holy book can tell us about the 2016 elections. The June issue taught us how to stop funding what we hate, how a housing-first model saved the life of a homeless transgender woman, and how prison guards are earning degrees alongside inmates.

Below, read our top 10 quotes from the June 2015 issue of Sojourners.

Faith Leaders Nationwide Call for Stay in Atlanta Woman's Execution, Scheduled Tonight

A woman in prison. Image courtesy littlesam/shutterstock.com
A woman in prison. Image courtesy littlesam/shutterstock.com

It is a great and terrible irony that our country’s correctional system does not often allow for or take much pride in perpetrators’ self-correction.

Yet to the degree that transformation within the system is possible, such appears to have happened for Kelly Gissendaner. The 46-year-old woman was sentenced to death for the 1998 murder of her then-husband, Doug. It is well-documented that her accomplice and then-boyfriend committed the act — he is sentenced to life, with a chance at parol.

Gissendaner faces excecution tonight at 7 p.m. EST.

If carried through, it will be the first time since 1976 that the state of Georgia will execute an individual who was not the person physically using violence in the crime.

Gissendaner’s case — that of a person guilty of murder whose profound internal transformation while in prison has led to a contemplative life of studying theology, mentoring at-risk youth, offering pastoral care to fellow inmates, and expressing full and sincere remorse for her actions — calls into stark question whether our criminal justice system, and specifically the state's use of the death penalty, honestly allows for the possibility for redemption.

The 10 Ferguson Stories You Need to See

Editor’s Note: On Monday night, it was announced that a grand jury in St. Louis County found no probable cause to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson on any of five possible counts. Throughout the country, protests have erupted. For this week’s edition of the Weekly Wrap, we wanted to offer you the 10 most important things you should see, read, digest to understand the situation. We pray for peace.

1. Letter From Birmingham Jail
by Martin Luther King Jr. Far more relevant than it should be. Print it out. Write on it. Pray through it. "In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities."

2. PHOTOS: Scenes From Ferguson — and Beyond
Slate compiled these chilling shots from protests in Ferguson, New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and more.

3. A Sad Night for America
“It is time to right the unacceptable wrong of black lives being worth less than white lives in our criminal justice system." our criminal justice system."

 

In the Name of Security

THE SAD RECORD of human history shows that torture has more often been the rule rather than the exception—in criminal justice systems as well as in interethnic, intercommunal, and international conflicts.

The use of torture in such situations—and brutalities that might fall short of torture but are nonetheless brutalities—can have many motivations. Torture demonstrates absolute power. Torture wreaks vengeance. Torture intimidates. Torture punishes. Torture coerces behavior change. Torture harms, and sometimes the sheer (perverted) pleasure of doing harm is enough motivation. And yes, torture is sometimes deployed to elicit information, confession, or “actionable intelligence.” (This was the main ostensible reason why the U.S. tortured after 9/11. But other factors on this list should not be overlooked.)

Torture appears to come all too naturally to fallen humanity. That is a still quite useful theological term that conveys the belief that humanity was created good by a good God but has fallen into sin and thus has suffered disastrous individual and collective damage to its character. Fallen human beings and human communities resort easily to torture.

So one way to talk about the ethics of torture and brutality is to start exactly here—with the historically and theologically grounded claim that torture has more often been the rule rather than the exception in human history, a dark but pervasive aspect of the behavior of fallen humanity. But what if we turn the discussion of torture upside down in what might be a constructive way?

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Untying the Hands of Justice

THE UNITED STATES has more than 2.3 million prisoners, a higher number than any other country. How did we become the world’s leading jailer? One of the main culprits: Mandatory sentences.

Visiting those in prison and giving Christmas gifts to children of incarcerated parents are only two steps toward fulfilling Jesus’ command to care for the “least of these” (Matthew 25). It’s time for the church to get serious about criminal sentencing reform—particularly, the reform of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which lock up so many people for so long with so little benefit to society.

The explosion in state and federal prison populations and costs began in the 1980s with the so-called war on drugs. Lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences passed by lawmakers are the primary weapon in that “war.” Judges have no choice but to apply these automatic, non-negotiable sentences of five, 10, or 20 years or even life in prison without parole. Whether the punishment actually fits the crime or the offender, protects the public, or leads to rehabilitation is irrelevant.

The results are unsurprising: irrational sentences, $80 billion annually in prison costs, and horrifically overcrowded prisons. States as varied as Georgia, New York, Delaware, South Carolina, California, and Michigan have confronted the reality of unsustainable prison budgets by repealing mandatory minimum sentences or creating “safety valve” exceptions that let judges go below the mandated punishment if the facts and circumstances warrant it. During this wave of reforms, crime has dropped to historic lows.

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Five Questions for Susan Burton

Susan Burton, photo by Kathleen Toner

Bio: Founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project in California, which has provided housing and support for more than 500 formerly incarcerated women.
Website: anewwayoflife.org

1. What motivated you to start A New Way of Life in 1998?
Through the kindness of a special person, I was able to access treatment services in Santa Monica [Calif.] after the sixth and final time I was released from prison. This was a new phenomenon for me. I am originally from South Los Angeles, and I was amazed that such resources were available in this more-affluent part of the city. I began to wonder why those same resources were not available in my home community—an area so heavily impacted by the “war on drugs.” I knew the need was desperate, and I wanted to bring those resources to South L.A. My work since then has been, and continues to be, a work of faith. I step out in faith, and God shows up.

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What’s Next for the First Catholic Bishop Convicted in Sex Abuse Cover-Up?

RNS photo courtesy Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph
Finn is charged with failing to report suspected child abuse. RNS photo courtesy Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph

Finn, leader of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and an outspoken conservative in the American hierarchy, was convicted of a single misdemeanor count for not telling police that one of his priests, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, had taken hundreds of lewd images of children in Catholic schools and parishes.

But even as he became the first U.S. bishop ever convicted in criminal court for shielding an abusive priest, Finn’s standing inside the church appears uncertain, and the subject of intense debate.

Should he stay or should he go? Finn has indicated that he wants to tough it out.

Is Solitary Confinement a Moral Punishment? (VIDEO)

Last month, the U.S. Senate held its first hearing ever on the issue of solitary confinement in prisons. To draw attention to the issue, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture urged Americans to fast for 23 hours for one day, symbolizing the 23 hours a day prisoners spend in solitary confinement each day.

"Christian scriptures and the scriptures of all religions say much about the way we are to treat other human beings, especially the most vulnerable," said the Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director of NRCAT. "And all religious traditions teach that it is important to honor and respect the dignity and worth that God has endowed in each human being. When we put people into solitary confinement cells, which we know are going to cause harm, then we have deeply violated that requirement from God to honor and respect each human being."

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