While many have never set foot on prison grounds, the view from inside a prison cell is far too common for an increasing number of Americans. Many factors have led to mass incarceration; however high recidivism rates, or rate of re-offense, is one of the major problems. Those who are incarcerated are often forgotten, that is until they commit another crime shortly after their release. Over the span of eight years, nearly half of those released are rearrested. For those 21 and under, the rate of recidivism jumps to 68 percent. Rather than asking what these extraordinary recidivism rates say about the offender, we must first ask what they say about our criminal justice system.
Last month Prison Fellowship launched the Faith and Justice Fellowship, a new coalition comprised of members of Congress, state executives, and state legislators from both parties and a variety of faith backgrounds who are reimagining our nation's approach to the criminal justice system. Prison Fellowship, which for many years has been committed to restoring individuals and families impacted by incarceration, formed the Faith and Justice Fellowship to “build, inform and inspire a movement of policymakers and voters who believe restorative values like human dignity and redemption should be represented in our national dialogue on criminal justice." Prominent members include Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), Congressman Danny Davis (D-IL), Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), among others.
The criminal justice system is typically associated with two kinds of justice: retributive and restorative. In its most basic definition, retributive justice is receiving punishment for a wrong. But retribution without restoration does not lead to transformation. When God created the earth and everything in it, it was good. Man later acted out in rebellion by eating the fruit, which lead to consequences the world still suffers from today; this is retribution. However, the story of the world does not end there. By the grace of God, He has chosen to restore His creation. God did not leave us to our imminent self-destruction.
God has given us the perfect model of justice, but how do we apply it? Restoration is a long, difficult, and often tedious process that requires many hands. Legislatively, the Faith and Justice Fellowship is hoping to work towards policies that recognize the inherent value that human beings, despite their criminal record, bring to society. Their desire is to restore returning citizens to their families and their communities.
Admittedly, this task can feel overwhelmingly complicated. However, it is signs of bipartisan progress like this that should give us great hope. When citizens in a community, the Church, organizations, and the government are able to work towards a common goal of restoration, the power to transform increases. The problem extends beyond one institution, so why shouldn’t the solution? It is not the responsibility of one political party, one branch of the government, one organization, one religious group, or one family. Rather for justice to truly prevail in our “justice" system, each of these institutions must bring their unique contributions to the table.
So how do we get there?
The first step is checking our assumptions and beliefs. We must see these people as what they are: people. Do you believe that each individual receives worth as an image bearer of God? Do you believe that anyone can be transformed? Do you believe that families should be restored? Do you believe that a second chance is sometimes all a person needs? When we take on this perspective, action becomes a requirement.
But transformation must also occur legislatively. Sentencing reform, reducing the use of solitary confinement, and promoting rehabilitative policies are just some of the areas where we can advocate for on a local, state, and federal level. Prison Fellowship lays out a vision where “…those harmed by crime are allowed to be a part of the process, those who offended are given a chance to make amends, and men and women are not incarcerated for longer than the wrongs committed them would warrant.” Once in prison, a culture where transformation can occur is just as important as the laws set to protect the dignity and safety of inmates. It is crucial that individuals are in an environment where they feel equipped to begin a successful life upon re-entry.
As we advocate for legislative change, we should also pray for those in positions of power. Abraham Lincoln recognized that, “God is the silent partner in all great enterprises.” Often times we turn to the Bible for support on moral issues, but fail to pursue its direct commands to us. 1 Timothy 2:1-2 says, “I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity.” Therefore, it is our responsibility to pray that our policymakers would be guided by God’s wisdom, boldness, and truth.
Finally, it is our duty as members of the Church to actively seek out ways to not only help the formerly incarcerated return to society, but to do so in a way in which they can thrive. This can range from simply spending time with an individual to connecting them to an organization where they can receive counseling, further their education, or get a job.
A reimagined criminal justice system does not simply benefit the individual who is incarcerated. When prisoners are seen first and foremost as people of worth, they begin to believe that about themselves; this changes everything. It opens the door for families to reconnect, and it leads to more people positively participating in society through education or work, to safer communities, and ultimately, to lower recidivism rates. A vision of public justice suggests that government, churches, organizations, and families each have unique roles and responsibilities in addressing the injustices in our criminal justice system. Significant change can, and already does, occur when these institutions fulfill these responsibilities. The Faith and Justice Fellowship's commitment to working together on this issue, despite deep differences, should be a source of hope and inspiration for those seeking change.
-Kara Dry is a senior studying Business and Psychology at Gordon College, and loves playing for the Gordon College Women's Soccer Team. She is currently spending her summer in Washington D.C. as an intern for the Center for Public Justice.