Did you know that two-thirds of those currently held in American jails have yet to be convicted of a crime?
Jails are typically short-term holding facilities, whether a person has just been arrested, is awaiting sentencing, or must serve a brief sentence (usually up to a year). Pew Charitable Trusts recently polled 1,215 people on the jail system in the United States and found that a majority of Americans support alternatives to detention when possible. Yet, the U.S.—with less than 4 percent of the world’s population—contains nearly 21 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, many of whom are in jail.
Then we factor in the number of people in prison. The total incarcerated population has ballooned over the last 40 years, from 440,000 people behind bars to more than 2.2 million. And our neighborhoods aren’t exactly the safest they’ve ever been. Are you scratching your head yet?
Christians remain markedly divided in their vision for “justice” in America today. In a recent study by the Barna group, 53% of Christians agreed with the statement, “It’s important to make an example out of someone for certain crimes, even if that means giving them a more severe punishment than their crime deserves.”
Even if they are punished more severely than their crime deserves. And proportional sentencing is just one facet of this complex and fractured system. Too often, incarcerated men and women are warehoused—not rehabilitated—and end up leaving prison worse than they went in.
If we believe in bringing the hope of the Gospel behind prison walls, we cannot be dismissive of our duty to see biblical values lived out in our justice system. Each person is worth more than the sum of what has happened to them or what choices they have made. This should motivate us to advocate for a justice system that upholds every person’s inherent, God-given worth. In an ideal system, we can hold perpetrators accountable, seek closure and healing for victims, and allow opportunities for restoration.
Where is your heart when it comes to crime and incarceration in America today? Are you a believer in biblical justice and restoration, but not sure where to begin?
Pray for our leaders. The Bible calls us to pray for those in authority, regardless of where they land on the political spectrum. You might even write a letter to your representatives, letting them know you are praying for them, and encouraging them to support restorative reforms like proportional sentencing.
Change your language. Words have weight, and how we talk about prisoners and former prisoners matters. Instead of saying convict, offender, or felon, try person-first language. Incarcerated man/woman. Person with a criminal record. Returning neighbor.
Get near to “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). Visit the prisoner. Reach out to affected families. Loved ones of prisoners often benefit from the same support as others living with long-term difficulties. Something simple can be significant, so try offering a ride to a family that wants to make prison visits but has no car. Fix a meal or provide childcare to a parent whose spouse has been arrested.
Stop and look in the mirror. (Michael Jackson was on to something.) We talk about striving to “remember those in prison” (Hebrews 13:3) and visiting “the least of these.” But we always need to check our hearts. We engage in prison ministry and reentry services because we’re being Christ’s hands and feet, not because we’re checking a box on our spiritual-good-deeds list.
Today the task is daunting, but we must care more now than ever. As Christians, we have no excuse not to. Columnist Michael Gerson put it this way in the Washington Post:
And there is no doubt that among the more than 2 million incarcerated Americans are some vicious and violent characters who deserve to be right where they are.
But there are several good reasons to care what happens in U.S. jails and prisons. First, this is a social stress test of sorts, measuring our commitment to human dignity. Do we believe that every life has value? . . . If no one, in the end, is beyond God’s help, then no one should be beyond our concern.