The first and only time I heard evangelical mega-figure Pat Robertson speak in public, he wasn't calling for the legalization of pot.
I was 21, a junior at Oral Roberts University, playing endless rounds of "Pomp and Circumstance" on my viola with the school orchestra. Robertson was present to give the commencement address to that year's graduates. I can't remember what he exhorted them to do, but I'm positive it didn't involve toking up.
Robertson still isn't spreading that message, but his recent comments about legalizing pot, the cruelty and irrationality of mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug crimes, and the expensive and failed War on Drugs are refreshing. Our harsh mandatory prison terms for drug offenses are incompatible with Christian principles of justice. This conviction -- and the faith I and Robertson share -- drove me first to law school and then to Washington, D.C. to work on criminal sentencing reform for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a secular organization. I join Robertson in posing a question all evangelicals should be striving to answer:
How would Jesus want us to punish?
Most Christians would start with Exodus 21's command that "an eye for an eye" is the right approach. Sadly, this verse has been cited to justify heartless vengeance in our criminal laws: "do the crime, do the time." The verse isn't a license to punish, but a limitation on punishment: the time must fit the crime and not be excessive. Giving either less or more punishment than the crime or the offender deserves is an injustice. The Proverbs repeatedly describe God's hatred of unfairly loaded measuring scales. Those scales include the scales of justice used in our courthouses.
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws weight those scales unjustly. They require one-size-fits-all sentences for all offenders who commit a certain crime. They forbid judges from considering unique or exceptional facts or circumstances about the offense or the offender. These sentences apply to many nonviolent drug offenses. More than half of our federal prison population is serving time for drugs; in state prisons, it's about one in five prisoners. Lengthy mandatory sentences have made our supposedly Christian nation the world's leading jailer, with 2.3 million imprisoned.
Jesus turned the "eye for an eye" concept on its head in Matthew 5, when he said, "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." Anyone can hit back, but it takes real Christian love to show compassion to criminals -- in Jesus' words, to love our law-breaking neighbors as ourselves and to treat them as we would like to be treated. It would be turning the other cheek to give many nonviolent offenders the help they really need, like drug and mental health treatment that is supervised by accountability courts. These cost-effective programs keep offenders connected to families and communities and consistently produce stories of transformed lives. But mandatory minimums don't let judges choose these non-prison alternatives.
Our lawmakers are to blame. Too many Christian legislators wear their faith like a badge of honor and proclaim a belief in redemption and forgiveness, but vote for more mandatory minimum prison sentences in election years. These lawmakers would do well to remember James 2:17: "Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." (James 2:13 is another good reminder. That verse tells believers to show others the same mercy they've received: "Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.")
The Book of James also teaches that a true mark of our faith is caring for widows and orphans. Every time we lock up a breadwinner, we create a widow. Every time we incarcerate a parent, we create an orphan. The Christian organization Prison Fellowship does wonders in recruiting the faithful to care for prisoners and their families, but it also urges legislators to reform the laws that are at the root of the problem. Both prison ministry and sentencing reform advocacy are essential. Christians should support reforming mandatory sentencing laws that perpetuate an over-reliance on prisons and fail to deliver the compassion, services and opportunities for redemption that prisoners and their families need.
More leaders like Robertson should tell Congress to remove the thumb of mandatory minimum sentences from our scales of justice. Our judges need flexibility and discretion to require an eye for an eye -- nothing less and nothing more. They also need more compassionate, redemptive -- I daresay Christian -- sentencing options that treat offenders like the valuable children of God we all are.
Molly M. Gill is the Director of Special Projects for FAMM. The views expressed in this piece are her own.
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