An evangelical, a Southern Baptist, and a Catholic walk into the Capitol Hill Visitors Center together ...
Though it sounds like the opening line of a joke, it happened at a joint Congressional staff briefing on October 11 sponsored by Justice Fellowship, the advocacy arm of the late Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries, and FAMM, a nonprofit, nonpartisan sentencing reform organization.
At the briefing, speakers from the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops put theological differences aside to discuss how Christian voters feel about crime and punishment policies, and what the Bible and Jesus Christ might have to offer for improving them. They found a remarkable amount of common ground.
For starters, they agreed that our sentencing laws should be fair and proportionate. The Bible's exhortations of "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth" are often used to support harsh sentences, but that scripture is also a reminder that the punishment should fit the crime. Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research for the Southern Baptist Convention, is deeply concerned about the crime rate and victims. Nonetheless, "punishment should fit crime -- neither leniency nor excess is right," said Dr. Duke.
Excess, in particular, is not affordable, either. The United States has 2.3 million people behind bars -- the world's largest prison population -- at an annual cost of $70 billion, a price we can no longer afford to pay. The budget crunch will demand congressional action on this issue in the coming term, but most Christians are more concerned that our current system does not reflect biblical teachings. According to all of the panelists, those teachings require both just punishment and restoration of offenders, victims, and communities. But we are failing on both counts.
As for just punishment, half of our federal prisoners are serving lengthy terms for nonviolent drug offenses, at an annual cost of $28,000 per prisoner. But two thirds of all federal drug offenders sentenced each year don't get the benefit of a fair, individualized punishment that matches their crime and their role in it. Instead, they get one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentences of five, 10, 15, or 20 years -- or even life without parole. These sentences require a limb for an eye, a leg for a tooth. They can be longer than the terms bank robbers and child rapists receive.
Mandatory minimums also fail completely at restoring offenders, victims, and communities. Instead, they have stuffed the federal prison system to 40 percent over capacity. Prisons should help offenders become self-sufficient, accountable people living crime-free lives, but overcrowding undermines a humane environment in which prisoners can focus on getting sober and becoming educated. Instead, prisoners (and prison staff) have to worry about and cope with the trauma of sexual and physical assaults, which proliferate when guards are outnumbered and overworked. Excessive sentences also wreak havoc on the innocent families prisoners leave behind. All of this becomes a recipe for recidivism and makes our communities less safe, creating more potential victims - the opposite of the community's goal.
Galen Carey, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said that our current policies are "in sharp tension with the inherently hopeful message of evangelical faith . . . When we see prisoners as fellow human beings made in God's image, we can no longer just lock them up and throw away the key." Carey's suggestions for reforms included establishing the National Criminal Justice Commission proposed by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.); expanding the use of alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders; insisting on a prison environment that promotes rehabilitation; supporting ex-offenders as they return home; and giving church-going volunteers more access to prisons.
Each year, thousands of American Christians volunteer with ministries like Prison Fellowship, visit and encourage prisoners, and care for their blameless families and children. But volunteering isn't enough. Christians now want to vote for lawmakers who share their belief in mercy, second chances, and redemption, even for the worst among us. Prison is often necessary to keep us safe, but our high recidivism rates show that it is rarely rehabilitative. In understanding this and supporting better options, Christians are steps ahead of most on Capitol Hill.
It's time for Congress to catch up.
Craig DeRoche is the vice president of Justice Fellowship, the advocacy arm of Prison Fellowship Ministries. Molly M. Gill is the government affairs counsel of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), a nonprofit, nonpartisan sentencing reform organization.