There are few social issues over which all within the greater Christian Church can agree, or at least historically have been able to find common ground. From gay marriage to gun control, it seems that religious ideology have gone part and parcel along with the respective political parties that tend to represent our social views.
Criminal sentencing certainly has been one of those divisive social issues among Christians, with many progressives calling for more leniency on nonviolent crimes, and conservatives embracing a "zero tolerance" ethos. If raw numbers are any indication, the right has been "winning" this debate for the past several decades, with prison populations in the United States increasing tenfold in the past forty or so years.
Only recently have the number of incarcerated people within our borders begun to decline, and it's in part due to a shift in the way those who have championed a hard-nosed approach to sentencing are reframing their thinking. In some respects, the reasons are logistical and economic; for others, the change of heart is informed particularly by their understanding of scripture and the mandates of the Gospel.
As I discuss in my upcoming book, postChristian: What's Left? Can We Fix It? Do We Care? The departure from more rigid institutional identities and values, whether because of inspired reflection or economic necessity, actually give us an opportunity to think in fresh ways about what Jesus calls us to do and be in the world. And not surprising, when we listen to that still small voice, we find some holy, common ground.
In the spirit of seeking such common ground, here are five ideas around which Christians -- and non-Christians -- from both the left and right are coming together.
Reform makes good financial sense. Studies have shown that drug treatment and monitored work programs consistently cost less than incarceration, while also proving to be more effective at helping those with substance abuse issues remain sober and stay out of prison in the future. This "bang for your buck" sensibility resonates with many fiscal conservatives concerned with prudence when it comes to tax dollars.
Reform reduces government's role in our lives. One historical core value of the right is that of limited government. Since the time of Jefferson, stemming the reach of Uncle Sam has been a drumbeat around which most on the right can rally. In the last thirty years, the public dollars funneled into housing prisoners has exploded past $1 trillion annually, while the use of illicit drugs by adults in the United States continues to increase. Suffice it to say that this is one government program that has failed to live up to its promises, and an increasing number of conservatives and libertarians are joining the chorus for reform as a result.
Second Chances are Biblical. Though some on the right have long embraced the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" attitude, others are finding a basis in scripture for inclining toward mercy, particularly when it comes to nonviolent crimes. Consider the stories of the Prodigal son, Jonah, David or even Adam and Eve who, though they were promised a death sentence for the transgressions they committed, actually benefitted from a reduced sentence.
Thinking on "paying our debt to society" is shifting. Traditionally, it's been suggested the way lawbreakers pay their debt is to sit in jail, and perhaps pick up some trash or hammer out a few license plates for pennies a day. But rather than developing skills as contributing citizens, most prisoners, after being imprisoned for a few years, simply become habituated to their new environment. In short: they become good convicts. Without proper job training and work placement programs, many prisoners turn to public services, from public shelters to SSI, food stamps, etc., to make ends meet. So we exchange one kind of public support for another, while adding nothing to the tax base. And since a federal law in the nineties was passed barring drug offenders from receiving food stamps or cash assistance, many former inmates turn back to criminal activities such as theft or prostitution, thus starting the cycle of recidivism in motion.
Warehousing nonviolent offenders is still big business in the United States, which means that people with significant influence are intent on keeping things more or less as they already are. And certainly not all on the political and religious right agree with the points above. But enough conservatives are breaking rank to begin to form coalitions with the center and left, so that real reform becomes an increasing possibility.
Meanwhile we're tied with only one other country for having the most prisoners per capita of any nation in the world: nearly as many per capita as Iran and Russia combined. Is this the legacy we want to leave in the annals of history, and the system of democracy we are preserving for our children?
Here's hoping the momentum of this new coalition continues to grow.