Co-authored by Bill Mefford, director of civil and human rights at the United Methodist Church's General Board of Church & Society; and Sala Nolan Gonzales, minister for criminal justice and human rights at the United Church of Christ's Justice & Witness Ministries.
As Christians should know but often don't, mass incarceration is one of our country's greatest sins. With less than 5% of the world's population, we house nearly 25% of the world's prisoners -- more than any other nation. Over half of these people are in for nonviolent offenses. And the system has a deep racial bias, with people of color (especially black men) receiving more prosecutions and longer sentences than white folks who commit the same crimes.
And yes, think of the children: There are 2.7 million kids in the United States with a parent behind bars, and 250,000 juveniles enter the adult system each year. We could be giving these kids a fighting chance by investing heavily in rehabilitation and prevention. We're not. And if anyone should be outraged by this, it's Christians, whose Savior said the way we treat prisoners is the way we treat Him. Most Americans call ourselves Christian, yet our criminal justice policies are anything but.
That's why the Beyond Bars campaign has teamed up with the United Methodists and United Church of Christ to produce "Redemption of the Prosecutor," a short documentary being premiered this Friday that shows why Christians need get up out of their pews and start taking action on mass incarceration. This isn't a typical Christian redemption story about the bad seed who finds Jesus in prison and turns his life around. Indeed it's the opposite: a prosecutor tries to turn his life around when he starts teaching classes in a Nashville prison and wonders if he's been the bad guy all along.
The prosecutor, Preston Shipp, strikes up a friendship with a prisoner named Cyntoia Brown. She's warm, smart, and funny. Yet Cyntoia had been convicted of homicide at 16 years old and sentenced to life in prison. Preston wondered how he could stay part of a system that put people like her behind bars for life. We won't spoil the ending, but Preston's crisis of conscience culminates in a pretty shocking discovery that leaves him feeling more convicted than Cyntoia ever did. At least in spirit.
The question becomes this: If a vindictive, biased justice system is irreconcilable with the Gospel, what is a Christian to do? The answer is first to get outraged -- a perfectly Christian emotion if it next leads to action that helps the powerless in their struggle for justice. We sometimes see those bracelets that ask, "What Would Jesus Do?" Well how about this: Jesus Would Do Something. Would you?
Start by signing up at RedemptionoftheProsecutor.org.