The state can enforce the law, but it’s up to us to restore people and communities
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America’s criminal justice would never escape indictment from a jury of its peers. Though we are home to just five percent of the world’s people, we lock up one quarter of the world’s prisoners. Our grossly disproportional incarceration rate is a manifestation of many years of moral, social, and institutional neglect.

As a society, we have turned to prisons as the one-size-fits-all response to public safety concerns. Meanwhile we have allowed our centers of moral formation to erode, we have enacted draconian sentencing policies based more on fear than on evidence, and we have failed to imagine or enact effective alternatives to prison time. In an effort to secure law and order, we have lost sight of justice based on the God-given value of each human life.

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The effects of over-criminalization are now pervasive, devastating, and long-lasting for families and American society at large. There are 2.2 million people behind bars at a cost of $70 billion per year, 2.7 million children with a parent in prison, and over 65 million people with a criminal record. 

 

 While crime rates have dropped dramatically in recent decades, only a small percentage of the decline is attributable to increased incarceration. We are far past the point of diminishing returns. Today, as the costs of this crisis become ever more obvious and unsustainable, state and national leaders are choosing different responses — some seeking alternatives to incarceration, and others, especially in the current administration, doubling down on tough-on-crime policies.

While the state can apprehend and punish wrongdoers, promote public safety, and provide for equal access to the instruments of justice, no government agency can provide the ultimate solution to our shared problem. The state can’t form the consciences of our children and young people. The state can’t re-establish trust and healing in crime-ridden communities. The state can’t offer comfort to the victims of crime, or restoration of hope and purpose to the people who commit crimes.

Millions of Americans have a fundamental belief in the Gospel message of redemption and the God-given value of each human life, yet major Christian institutions have too often been silent on criminal-justice issues. This silence has contributed to the current crisis. Yet, woven deeply into the fabric of American communities, the Church has a unique responsibility and unmatched capacity to care for victims, minister to the men and women behind bars, and advocate for justice that restores.

While some churches and denominations have long sought reform, the broader Christian community, particularly evangelicals, are now awakening to the urgency of this issue. A recent Barna poll commissioned by Prison Fellowship indicated that eighty-seven percent of practicing Christians agreed “strongly” or “somewhat” that caring for prisoners was important based on their values. The time has come for Christians and churches to apply those same values to advance a justice system that is fair and redemptive for all.

Today, along with a host of prominent Christian leaders, we are launching the Justice Declaration to inspire the larger Christian community to join us in addressing this crisis.

Together followers of Christ need to call for a justice system that affirms and respects the God-given dignity of each person, emphasizing a pathway to restoration in addition to accountability. We should focus on preventing crime by strengthening families, communities, and others central of moral formation.

When crimes do occur, we should be on the front lines of victim care, even as we should speak up for equal access to the instruments of justice, no matter the socioeconomic status of the accused. We should advocate for proportional punishment and alternatives to incarceration for those convicted of crimes, and we should invest our time and resources in the redemption and rehabilitation of people now behind bars or living with a criminal history. 

Crime is a moral issue, but so, too, is our response to it. If we are willing to overlook the many ways our justice system perverts justice, with devastating consequences for individuals and families, what claim can we make to loving our neighbors? And how can the Church bear witness to God’s justice and mercy if we simply write off the one in four Americans with a criminal record? Instead we should hold our leaders accountable for enacting a justice system geared toward restoration, and we should take up our responsibility to be active agents of that restoration.

Russell Moore is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. James J. Ackerman is the president and chief executive officer of Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families.


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