The Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics entity has joined with Prison Fellowship and other organizations in an appeal to Christians to work for a “fair and redemptive” justice system in the world’s leading incarcerating country.
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) partnered with Prison Fellowship, the country’s largest outreach to prisoners, and two other evangelical groups to produce the Justice Declaration, which was unveiled June 20 at a Washington, D.C., news conference.
Photo by Brady Weller
ERLC President Russell Moore comments on the Justice Declaration during its unveiling at a June 20 news conference in Washington, D.C.
In its appeal, the statement urges followers of Jesus to support “proportional punishment,” care for victims of crime, minister to the families of prisoners, preach the gospel and disciple incarcerated men and women.
The motivation for creating the Justice Declaration and an accompanying white paper is “our nation’s crisis of over-criminalization,” Prison Fellowship President James Ackerman said at the news conference.
“Our country’s overreliance on incarceration fails to make us safer or to restore people and communities who have been harmed,” Ackerman noted.
The United States has only five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, Ackerman said. Nearly 2.2 million people are behind bars, and 2.7 million children have a parent who is in prison, he told reporters. About 65 million people have a criminal conviction.
“I think most of us in American life can agree – our criminal justice system doesn’t work the way it is supposed to,” ERLC President Russell Moore said at the news conference. “We should fix it, and as evangelical Christians, we should be among the first to say so.”
In addition to Moore, other Southern Baptist leaders among the nearly 100 original signers are James Merritt, Atlanta-area pastor and former SBC president; Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; John Yeats, executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention; Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University; Trillia Newbell, the ERLC’s director of community outreach; college presidents; and seminary and college professors.
C. Ben Mitchell, provost and professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., served as the project writer for the declaration and white paper.
In addition to the ERLC and Prison Fellowship, the other partners in the initiative are the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
A new Barna public opinion survey commissioned by Prison Fellowship showed 87 percent of Americans – and an even higher rate of practicing Christians – agree the main goal of the justice system should be restoration for the victim, the community and the person who commits the crime. Yet, the poll also showed 53 percent of practicing Christians affirmed this statement: “It’s important to make an example out of someone for certain crimes, even if it means giving them a more severe punishment than their crime deserves.”
Too many Christians fail to recognize “disproportionate punishment” is inconsistent with the church’s values, Ackerman told reporters.
Moore said at the news conference, “Our criminal justice system does not exist to vent. Our criminal justice system exists in order to restrain evil and in order to rehabilitate and to reform those who have committed crimes.”
NAE President Leith Anderson said, “The time has come to fix our criminal justice system. And the reason is there is too much injustice in America’s criminal justice system.”
Anderson cited prison overcrowding and racial inequities in the prison population among evidences of the problem.
Harry Jackson, senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., said the declaration has struck an “important nerve” regarding race relations.
“In this hour of racial tension, the most important step of healing that we could take at this point is to deal with the fact that there is an increasing, permanent underclass that is coming out of black and Hispanic people being incarcerated and their lives being, in a sense, marked off” the list of achievers in the society, he told reporters. “I believe this is the most important civil rights step that we will take in our lifetimes.”
Among its calls, the declaration urges Christians to:
Seek to prevent crime by nourishing “seedbeds of virtue,” including families, churches and other sources of “moral formation;”
Minister to survivors of crimes and assure their protection;
Support “proportional punishment,” including “alternatives to incarceration, that protects public safety, fosters accountability and provides opportunities to make amends;”
Welcome back into churches and communities those who “have paid their debt to society” and provide opportunities for them to achieve their potential.
The white paper – “Responding to Crime and Incarceration: A Call to the Church” – addresses the causes of “over-criminalization” and offers faith-based solutions.
At the 2013 SBC meeting, messengers approved a resolution expressing “support of legislative policies that seek to reduce high incarceration rates without jeopardizing public safety” and affirmed that “probation and parole may serve as a wise, just, and effective alternative to prolonged incarceration for certain nonviolent offenders.”
The resolution urged federal, state and local criminal justice agencies to “increase cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention and other like-minded organizations who seek to reach offenders with the life-transformational gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The ERLC endorsed in 2015 a bill designed to reduce the prison population and increase public safety by calling for the Department of Justice to expand programs to reduce recidivism – which is the relapse into criminal activity by ex-prisoners that results in re-arrest, reconviction or re-imprisonment typically within three years after their release – by partnering with faith-based and other non-profit organizations.
The sponsors of the Justice Declaration have invited Christians to endorse the document at justicedeclaration.org.