Margot PattersonNovember 20, 2013
"Nobody was ever punished into a change of heart"

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.

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Stanley Kopacz
7 years 11 months ago
On top of the punitive culture you describe is now the privatisation and profitability of incarceration. And these companies can support politicians who support stronger punishment, a vicious feedback loop. Thank you for your humanitarian Christian thoughts.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 11 months ago
Yes. Yes. Yes. Thank you for writing this in such a bold and clear way. Having been involved with prisoners and their families for more than 20 years, I can attest to the pain and fracturing that these terrible injustices cause. I see it as the sin of slavery gone underground. It is frustrating that most Americans are totally blind to this phenomenal suffering right in our midst. Every couple of hundred miles in this country there is a huge compound filled with human beings that are thrown away and forgotten.
Nancy and Thomas Chisholm
7 years 10 months ago
With the exception of the increasing numbers of prisoners in this land of the free, nothing has changed since Eugene Debs wrote his testament of poverty, prisons and capitalism, "Walls and Bars," before he died in 1927. He particularly emphasized children. Of course Debs was not poor. His crime was free speech in behalf of the common man and opposition to WW I. The Espionage Act is still extant. His short book is worth reading.
Alice Whalen
7 years 10 months ago

When I read Ms. Patterson's article I was shocked to see that a 17-year-old would be sentenced to life in prison for a noncapital case. The loss of a teenager whether it be by homicide (the leading cause of death among black male teenagers), accident, suicide, or life imprisonment is a terrible thing.
The obvious question is why would two older accomplices receive 10 to 13 year sentences and Travion Blount receive life imprisonment? Did Mr. Blount have poor representation, was the judge prejudiced, did Travion suffer from diminished intellectual capacity? Was there another side to this story?
I certainly am not trying to justify the sentence that Mr. Blount received. What I am trying to do, however, is see if there was another side of the story that affected this terrible outcome. It turns out Mr. Blount was advised by the judge, the prosecutor, his attorney, his mother and one of the other defendants to accept the plea deal offered by prosecution. Had he taken the plea deal, he would have received similar sentencing to the other defendants. He chose to plead not guilty, resulting in this extreme sentence.
So there was another side to the story in this case. Ms. Patterson makes some thought provoking points about some of the issues regarding sentencing guidelines and many of the inconsistencies and injustices that are inherently part of our justice system. However, in this case her presentation of only one side of the story ultimately weakens her argument.

Edward R. Whalen

Paul Stolz
7 years 10 months ago
On December 15, 30 year old Dustin Friedland was shot to death in front of his wife by four men who carjacked his vehicle at the Short hills mall in NJ. Of the four men who killed Dustin, 3 of them had criminal records from burglary to bank robbery. As i read about the extensive criminal history of the men who committed this brutal evil action I thought of this article. I am curious about what you would have to say to Jaimie Friedland who watched her husband get murdered, who probably held him as he lay dying? You have sympathy for Travion Blount who at age 15 committed armed robbery and is serving a life sentence. I wonder how many people are alive today because Mr Blount a violent man is incarcerated and will be his entire life. Jesus did come to save sinners and He can save them in prison. I pray Mr. Blount and others have a change of heart but they will have to pay a price for the violence and the grievious harm they inflicted on others. Had 3 of these men been incarcerated for life Dustin would probably be alive and Jaimie wouldnt have to watch the constant replay of the man she loved being killed.
Peggy Avent
6 years 4 months ago
I am a psychotherapist with 30 years experience treating trauma. For 4 years I worked with a young man who, in a period of depression after his girlfriend left him, mindlessly downloaded porn and smoked pot. Some of the porn was child porn. He passed it over this when he saw what it was. The program apparently used his address to distribute more porn. He came to treatment on his own, and paid for it on his own. He had an ankle monitor on for four years before he finally went to trial. He was not allowed to look for a better job, go to church or anywhere else except work, counseling, and the courthouse. He was checked up on at every turn. One of his pre-trial officers even tried to interfere with his counseling appointments, sabotaging some of his visits. I saw amazing progress and totally trust him. He had job prospects waiting. He has a girlfriend and child and desperately wants to be a productive citizen and father. I was ready to testify, but his high paid lawyer was afraid I would sound like I was soft on him and seemed to be afraid of the hard-nosed DA. He left a message for me not to come to court. Apparently he did not present any of the evidence in the man's favor. This young man was sentenced to ten years in Federal prison. He didn't even get time for the years he was essentially under house arrest with the ankle monitor. I still cannot wrap my mind around how this serves anyone. Taxpayers will pay thousands of dollars to lock up a good man who would be a productive citizen and father. His child will be half grown before he is able to see her and his opportunities will be very limited when he gets out. As a therapist I believe this destructive treatment is a breeding ground for more dysfunction. In many cases it is this authoritarian/ unforgiving type of parenting that led to crime in the first place. Parents who are accused of child abuse are required to take parenting courses that say that a punishment/ revenge style of parenting is destructive, yet it is all that our justice system and child protective system seems to know. The goal seems to be, --how to make the lives of the accused as difficult as possible, and make it as hard as possible to get on your feet. The damage of such a system can go on for generations. I ask for prayer for this man and his family and for the messed up Criminal Justice system that thinks this is the answer. I also ask for any ideas about how to help this man.

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