In reviewing the statement, the congregation at St. John’s met in the spring of 2012 to conduct an initial review. Over the summer months, members of the congregation studied the statement, and two additional congregational meetings were held in September of 2012 to consider the statement further as well as to draft these remarks.
Throughout October of 2012, members of the congregation reviewed and edited this draft of the remarks by trading e-mail messages with each other. A final version of these remarks was reviewed and approved at the October 2012 council meeting for the congregation.
II. Scope and principles
The statement begins with a theological discussion of justice, forgiveness, and civic life. It strikes an appropriate balance between faith-based concerns for a living gospel and sectarian reform efforts.
As explained:The United States understands its justice system in light of the nation’s constitutional mandate to “establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, and promote the general welfare.” This church believes that there is significant evidence that the institutions of justice in the United States are in urgent need of reform.
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Not possessing special insight into matters of reason, this church does not presume to instruct the public authority how, concretely, the justice system should be shaped. This church does, however, urge the development, implementation and assessment of criminal justice procedures and criminal law on the basis of human reason and principled, evidence-based practices, and laments the absence of such critical reason in many areas of the system.
(Statement, p.9, ll.220-8, and p.10, ll.251-6).
The statement then sets forth some of the basic criminal justice problems in: law enforcement; the judiciary; corrections and reintegration; the racial patterns and discrimination in the criminal justice system; and assistance to victims of crime. The statement also acknowledges that housing and immigration issues have increasingly been decided in the context of criminal justice matters in ways that frustrate concerns for assisting victims of crime and getting offenders reintegrated into their communities.
The statement continues its theological discussion with specific references to basic Christian principles and texts and shows how a forgiving God encourages forgiveness and compassion for both offender and victim. The Christian response, as stated,
is directed toward those in need who have been harmed by injustice, including victims of crime, those whose family members have been incarcerated, and many others. The gospel empowers those it touches freely to reach out in wise, creative, justice-seeking love to those in need.
(Statement, p.22, ll.609-12). In other words, these sections concisely and credibly set forth the issues that must be addressed in any faith-based examination of the criminal justice system.
III. Application and proposals
The statement begins its discussion of how to respond to criminal justice concerns by recalling for all of us the importance of loving responses to others and how that priority should guide us in criminal justice matters. “When the victim of crime is helped to speak about her experience, when the inmate is visited simply for the sake of developing a friendship, and when a family is supported in their struggle, the righteousness of the gospel is present” (Statement, p.30, ll.871-3).
This message serves as an important reminder to all of us, and it is to be applauded.
The statement then moves to some of the obvious outcomes of this position. For example, care should be taken to not victimize the families of offenders. Furthermore, the negative correlation between incarceration and community ties shows that lengthy incarceration accomplishes little in actually reducing crime. And, the statement makes important contributions to the discussion of criminal justice concerns by including those charged with implementing these policies, namely police, parole, and correction officers, court staff, and the social workers and others. As noted in the statement, any reforms by themselves will have limited impact if not accompanied by efforts to reach out and support these individuals who are charged with carrying out criminal justice decisions in their daily work.
At times, however, the details are so packed together that it is difficult to ascertain what is actually being said. For example:
Citizens and taxpayers also cry out. U.S. drug policy has led to massive increases in the budgets of law enforcement agencies and prisons to house those convicted of crimes. An increasingly litigious society has sent legal costs skyrocketing and diminished the system’s efficiency.
Unequal access to legal representation contributes to a sense of “justice for sale” to those with the means to pay for the fullest imaginable legal defense. Further, some criminal justice procedures seek to promote fairness, but in doing so often overlook relationships involved, erase individuals, and silence their cries to be recognized as unique individuals.
(Statement, p.30, ll.856-63). Each sentence here is itself a subject of countless articles in law reviews and the criminal justice literature and are simply too general to know what is actually intended. For example, what does a “litigious society” mean in criminal justice matters? Is this reference intended to criticize prosecutors who overcharge crimes so as to have increased leverage in plea-bargaining?
Or, is the reference an indictment of overzealous defense attorneys who let the guilty walk free? Or, is the statement here contending that the rush to sue in civil matters has flooded court dockets and led to criminal matters not being prosecuted?1 The last sentence, in particular, cries out for specific examples of what is meant by how a criminal justice system intended to promote fairness does not actually accomplish such a goal. Based on prior observations in the statement, guesses can be made here about the intended meaning. But, in a subject as important as a faith-based response to criminal justice issues, readers should understand exactly what is being said in all parts of the statement.
The description of the kinds of hospitality that can be undertaken is excellent. There are valuable reminders here about providing healing opportunities, giving offenders access to job training and placement, advancing social and economic support to the families of offenders, mentoring those employed within the criminal justice system, and showing a willingness to discuss the difficult issues of crime within our communities. But, there needs additional detail about what kind of specific support the church can provide those who work in the criminal justice system. Furthermore, the invitation to welcome offenders seems hypocritical when that welcome is limited for those guilty of financial crimes and sex offenses (see Statement, p.32, ll.908-11, and elsewhere).
The blanket cautions expressed here imply that certain crimes do indeed mandate second-class status. Surely, the point is not to allow the church to disregard entire classes of individuals who commit certain crimes but simply to acknowledge that any response should be careful not to enable or create the kind of environment that might tempt offenders to commit crimes again. As the statement itself acknowledges, many “features of the present [criminal justice] system seem simply irrational” (Statement, p.34, ll.981-2), and so the statement should be careful itself not to create categorical answers that are blind to the actual circumstances that people find themselves in. Both offenders and victims often find themselves involved in deeply emotional and conflicting positions when trying to assess how to move on in their lives. As a result, the kinds of support that can be offered and which will be accepted can vary from person to person and as events and feelings in these individuals’ lives shift over time.
The statement also needs to acknowledge that at times the process of how reforms are carried out is just as important as the reforms themselves. Victims rights — an important criminal justice development over the past few decades — is incomplete when the processes to safeguard those rights are absent or incomplete. For example, a victim’s right to be heard before a district attorney in regards to sentencing recommendations is hollow if the district attorney disregards those concerns and leaves the victim isolated.
Finally, the statement needs to acknowledge that many of the reforms being discussed intersect with questions of federalism. State-based initiatives, for instance, cannot change federal housing laws that prohibit those with criminal records or their family members from living in public-housing programs (cf. Statement, p.53).
A. Finances of reform
The financial cost of reform is an important concern that undergirds the various efforts to changing current criminal justice practices that is hardly touched on at all in the statement. There is a large push in the current political climate against governmental expenditures of all kinds and a cry to make government smaller. Many of the reforms and concerns at the heart of the statement call for and require greater government involvement and expenditures. The addition of social workers, prison chaplains, and counselors will cost monies that are in short supply in the economic climate of today. Even when the reforms will save money by reducing reliance on our jails and prisons, there is still a great deal of concern over who will pay for these alternative programs.
As a result, in many states electronic monitoring, work-release centers, and diversion programs, are only available when the offender covers the costs of these efforts him or herself. The transitional support called for in the statement, while vital for getting offenders reintegrated into their communities, provides no examination of how these programs will be financed. A call that criminal justice expenditures be “driven by reliable research” (Statement, p.55, ll.1530-1), is insufficient to indicate how monies should actually be spent, especially since there is a great deal of debate over what research is actually reliable or not.
The discussions over rehabilitation, incarceration alternatives,re-entry programming, and restorative justice also need additional information about how these efforts will be financed.
The discussion of prison privatization, on the other hand, demonstrates convincingly how short-term efforts for saving money run against any sense of justice that seeks something more than punishment. This section shows how privatization efforts are wholly inadequate for actually accomplishing hoped-for savings and provides excellent instruction about the pitfalls of this alleged “financial” reform.
B. Sentencing reform
The statement puts forward common-sense reforms regarding alternatives to incarceration and the reduction and modification of mandatory sentences. These reforms are linchpins for addressing concerns for racial disparities and for redirecting valuable resources in the prosecution of drug-related crimes.2
The statement’s excellent discussion of juvenile sentencing and the concern about juveniles being treated as adults provides an important caution about current trends in juvenile criminal matters. But, the statement also needs to acknowledge that there are different levels of juvenile offenders and that some juvenile offenders need protection from other juveniles. As a result, some transfers of juveniles to adult correctional facilities are done for the purpose of protecting other juveniles. This legitimate reason needs to be acknowledged.