Criminal Justice System

What does the ELCA teach about: the Criminal Justice System?

Our time in examining the social justice statements of the ELCA continues this month with “A Social Statement on The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries.”  This social statement was adopted at a churchwide assembly in August, 2013 and is (an astounding) 64 pages in length.  You can read the entire Social Statement at the ELCA Webpage.

Because of the very long length of the social statement, it is nearly impossible to cover every aspect of the statement here in a brief overview.  I will do my best to summarize the points that I think are the most important to understanding the overall themes of the statement.

  • The ELCA acknowledges and supports the ideal of innocence until guilt is proven. The ELCA recognizes that God’s understanding of justice is far better than our human reflections of it.
  • The ELCA, its ministries, and its member are called to act in response to the cries of those impacted by the criminal justice system: perpetrators and victims of crimes, families, communities, those wrongfully convicted, those who work in the criminal justice system.
  • The ELCA gives thanks for those who do their duty in the criminal justice system with an eye toward both justice and compassion.  The ELCA calls its ministries and members to pray for those who work in that system as they live into these challenging vocations.
  • With the above in mind, the ELCA recognizes that the criminal justice system has many deficiencies including but not limited to: a punitive mindset (rather than restorative), budgetary constraints, inequalities based on race and class, etc.
  • The ELCA supports and encourages its members to support: a focus on the rights and restoration of victims of crime, restorative justice, community-based alternatives to incarceration, reform of sentencing guidelines, specialized courts (drug court, mental health court, etc.), focus on safe reentry.
  • The ELCA is deeply troubled by the harm mass incarceration causes to individuals, families, and communities.  Members are encouraged to support and advocate for policies that: seek alternatives to traditional incarceration, reform sentencing laws, closely scrutinize and advocate for more equitable drug enforcement policies.
  • The ELCA advocates for these actions from policy makers:  (1) The criminal justice system must acknowledge and address disparities – particularly those tied to race and class.  (2) The criminal justice system must acknowledge and address the special needs of juvenile offenders.  (3) The criminal justice system must stop the privatization of prison facilities.  (4) The criminal justice system must foster reintegration of ex-offenders into the community.
  • Individuals who commit crimes must be held responsible for their actions and behaviors.  However, enforcement of our laws should be primarily related to justice rather than punitive.

That’s a lot, isn’t it?  When those are the ‘main points’ it’s not very shocking that the entire document is 64 pages long.  With that in mind, what do we do with this statement?  I’ve compiled a list of a few things that you might consider doing if you are interested in calling for a more Christ-like Criminal Justice System:

  1. Call for reevaluation of charges for drug offenses.  While drug use is a big issue in the United States, many of those in jail and prison for drug offenses may be better served by addictions treatment rather than time in jail.  Blackford County doesn’t have a Drug Court (a specialized court that orders treatment rather than jail time).  Why not call for action on this?
  2. Take a look at your investment portfolio.  Are you (maybe inadvertently) invested in the for-profit criminal justice system?  Consider talking with a financial professional who can help you divest from those funds.
  3. Do you have time to give?  Would you be interested in mentoring a young person who may have a parent in the criminal justice system?  It’s been shown that having a parent in the criminal justice system has a negative impact on children which can create a cycle of poverty that extends generations.  Can you provide a positive role model for them?
  4. Contact your elected leaders and ask them what they are doing to foster restorative justice measures in our criminal justice system.  Hold them accountable and let them know you will hold them accountable.
  5. Could God be calling you to be a listening ear or volunteer for jail ministry?  There is an active non-denominational jail ministry for both the men and women in our county jail and there is training available.  Contact Pr. Sharilyn if you would like to serve.