THE BLOG
09/24/2014 11:56 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Incarceration or Redemption?

Today, over 2,000,000 Americans are in jail or in prison. We've got five percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. More black men are under the control of the criminal justice system in America today than were enslaved before the Civil War began. Our prison-industrial complex has become the latest of a long series of forms of systematic oppression against people of color. Lawyer and activist Michelle Alexander rightly calls it The New Jim Crow in her recent book.

For decades, politicians got elected by promising to stop crime by catching criminals, casting them into prison, and, in more and more cases as time passed, throwing away the keys. Mandatory minimum sentences, "three strikes" laws, and trumped-up punishments for relatively minor offenses resulted from this perceived political calculus, continually ratcheting-up the harshness of our criminal justice system.

But today, the math makes no sense. Not for justice, not for public safety and not even for politics. A confluence of events is leading America to look for those long-lost jailhouse keys. The moment couldn't have come soon enough. It's the good news that followed from the bad: federal, state and local governments ran out of money. We can't afford mass incarceration anymore.

Republican Tea Partiers finally have awakened to the obvious: Big jails are manifestations of the big government they so despise. Why spend tax money on "three hots and a cot" for a prisoner jailed for a victimless crime? Liberals have been afraid to press for an end to mass incarceration for fear of looking "soft on crime," but now that conservatives are changing their attitudes due to fiscal factors, the conversation seems politically safer. Too bad it was money and not basic human decency that drove us to this moment of opportunity for reform, but let us rejoice that the time for change has come. States controlled by Republicans are beginning to reduce their prison and jail populations by diverting criminals into rehabilitation or other community-based programs. California's big "realignment" from state prisons to local jails is resulting in an overall lowering of the rate of incarceration.

A opportunity for further major reform approaches in California: Proposition 47. It reclassifies some petty crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and re-sentences law-breakers accordingly, keeping people in their communities and out of state prison. It also reclassifies past petty offenders, enabling them remove felonies from their records. This will eliminate barriers to jobs, housing, student loans and public assistance they need in order to redeem themselves in society. If the voters support Proposition 47 this November, California will lead the way for other states to make similar moves from incarceration to restoration.

We ask God to forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. One of our trespasses has been the unprecedented mass incarceration of mostly black and brown people for insufficient causes. For this social sin, we Americans must humbly repent and make restitution by offering them the chance to return to society and do the same.

(For more on the faith-based response to mass incarceration, check out Justice Not Jails and Progressive Christians Uniting.) (Oct 3-5 weekend is a time for congregations all over America to reflect in worship on the issue of mass incarceration: For resources, see Ties That Bind.)