Justice system needs ‘appropriate adjustments’
A reformation of America’s criminal justice system should focus on restitution for victims, rehabilitation for offenders and safety for the public, a Southern Baptist ethicist and several other religious leaders said in briefing at the U.S. Capitol.
The panelists called for re-examination of a system that has resulted in the world’s largest prison population at 2.3 million people and a cost to taxpayers of $70 billion a year, according to the event’s sponsors. Their recommendations included establishing a national commission to study criminal justice in the country and considering a revision of mandatory minimum sentences, especially for non-violent offenders.
“[W]e need a commission to study the entire criminal justice system, the way we are doing criminal justice at this point, and find out where it’s working and where it’s not and be prepared to make appropriate adjustments,” Southern Baptist ethicist Barrett Duke said in agreeing with a recommendation by co-panelist Galen Carey of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). “If the mandatory minimums are not sensitive enough, then that needs to be addressed.”
Duke is vice president for public policy and research of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). Carey is NAE’s vice president for government relations.
In his presentation, Duke offered seven theological truths related to crime and punishment that included these comments:
- “God is the ultimate law-giver. There are universal standards of right and wrong.
- “God instituted government to enforce His standards.
- “People are personally responsible for their actions.
- “Crime against others should be punished.
- “All people are created in the image of God and are due appropriate respect. In this context, it means protection and adequate care of prisoners is appropriate.
- “The punishment should fit the crime. Neither leniency nor excess should be tolerated.
- “Punishment should be restorative whenever possible. Rehabilitation should be the goal in most instances, not retribution.”
Duke also cited a personal theological principle, saying Jesus’ teaching and Christian compassion require that he “minister to the prisoner regardless of his crime. Christians believe in second chances. All of us received a second chance through our faith in Jesus Christ when God forgave us of our sin.”
The briefing’s sponsors — Justice Fellowship and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) — pointed to the following statistics to illustrate the crime-and-punishment problem in the United States:
- America is the No. 1 jailer in the world.
- The federal prison system has nearly 220,000 inmates, nearly 40 percent more than it is designed to handle.
- More than half (51 percent) of federal prisoners are incarcerated for a drug crime.
- More than 60 percent of federal drug offenders received mandatory minimum sentences during the last fiscal year.
- Nearly 53 percent of all sentenced drug offenders had few or no prior offenses.
- 1 million additional government employees have been hired in America’s corrections system since 1980.
- One in 33 Americans is on probation, on parole or incarcerated at this time.
- The arrest rate for murder in 2011 was only 30 percent in Chicago and 50 percent in Detroit.
Too many inmates, especially in federal prisons, are not “truly dangerous people,” said FAMM government affairs counsel Molly Gill, who served as moderator of the Oct. 11 panel discussion.
Other panelists criticized mandatory minimum sentencing laws, but Duke said the ERLC supports them.
“In our opinion, minimum sentences are useful, because they help prevent the influence of the biases of judges, because judges also bring their own biases into the courtroom and there may be a time when a judge is too lenient or too extreme on a particular issue,” he said.
Duke acknowledged such laws may need to be revisited for correction.
Some panelists called for alternatives to imprisonment for some offenders. One of NAE’s recommendations to Congress, Carey said, urges: “Expand the use of alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders with a focus on victim restitution and community service.”
Panelists also urged a cap on what are sometimes excessive phone rates from prisons so inmates and their families can remain in contact. “t’s been demonstrated that the level of connection that prisoners have with their families while they’re behind bars has a big effect on how they do when they come out,” Carey said.
Though Duke acknowledged rehabilitation of offenders is a goal, he said, “[T]here are times when incarceration is not for rehabilitation … and we believe capital punishment is appropriate at times.”
Also speaking at the briefing were Craig DeRoche, vice president of Justice Fellowship, and Kathy Saile, director of domestic social development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.