If there is one cause in this country that Christians should take up, it is reforming the U.S. criminal justice system. Whether we’re talking about mass incarceration, harsh sentencing, pervasive racism, the treatment of juvenile offenders or conditions inside prisons, the U.S. justice system is frequently not just, and it is certainly not Christian.
Most Americans probably know that the United States incarcerates proportionally more of its citizens than any other country in the world, about 2.2 million, a rate of 716 prisoners for every 100,000 people. To put that into perspective, Russia imprisons 475 people per 100,000, Costa Rica 314, Iran 284, China 121, Norway 72. Americans make up 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
Many Americans also know that black men in this country are far more likely to end up in prison than white men, almost six times more likely. Though far more whites than blacks use drugs, blacks are 10 times more likely to be sent to prison for drug possession.
What many people do not know is that even as crime rates have been going down in this country, life sentences have been going up. Since 1984, the number of people serving life in prison has quadrupled to over 159,000, with nearly 50,000 people serving life terms without possibility of parole. More than 10,000 of all lifers were convicted of crimes committed before the age of 18; one in four of these young offenders received a sentence of life without parole. In the past four years alone, there has been a 22.2 percent increase in these sentences, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization working in the criminal justice field.
Life without parole is not reserved only for murder. Consider Travion Blount, who at age 15 participated in an armed robbery in Norfolk, Va. No one was shot or killed. Two of his fellow gang members, older boys who planned the robbery, received sentences of 10 years and 13 years. Blount received six life sentences adding up to 118 years.
Years ago a Jamaican woman told me that she thought Americans were among the most vindictive people on earth. I’ve never known how to assess that statement, but the treatment of those convicted of a crime in this country would seem to support it.
Conditions inside most prisons have grown worse during the past 35 years, only partly due to overcrowding. Ex-offenders talk about the deliberate dehumanization that goes on in prison.
“When you’re there, it’s very clear that humiliating people is part of the control mechanism,” said Karl Rodney, an ex-con I spoke to in Kansas City last week.
Francis Cullen, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati and the author of the book Reaffirming Rehabilitation, said that beginning in the mid 1970s, and for different reasons, both liberals and conservatives abandoned rehabilitation as the dominant perspective on prisons. The focus shifted to deterrence through harsher and harsher penalties. Education programs were cut, and corrections officials no longer were paid to rehabilitate inmates but to keep them in line.
“The biggest thing that happened was that prisons got meaner,” Cullen said. “There was a concerted effort to make people’s lives miserable.”
Americans sometimes become exercised about barbarous punishments inflicted by the Taliban in Afghanistan or in other rough corners of the world, but rarely do we discuss the heartlessness shown prisoners here at home, where they are warehoused for decades and often put in solitary confinement until they go mad.
Christianity is not a religion of or for perfect people leading perfect lives. Christ came to save sinners. These are a mixed bag and include thieves, drug addicts, murderers and gang members. Redemption and forgiveness are at the core of the Gospels. That does not entail not holding people accountable for their crimes; it does mean recognizing that with the grace of God all of us are capable of change. But nobody was ever punished into a change of heart.
Locking people up and throwing away the key is the antithesis of the Gospel message. It’s why Christians should be leading efforts to restore hope, charity and balance to our penal system.