On Sunday, I witnessed an arrest. I had just returned to Chicago from a trip to St. Louis and the heat in the city was blistering. My apartment does not have air conditioning, and, with a heat index in the triple digits, I decided to take my dog down for a walk on the shore so that we could both find some relief in the coolness of the lake breeze. As I rounded the corner of my building, I saw blue lights in the alley—lots of blue lights. A young man was removed from his car by an entourage of at least six police officers. As two officers pushed the young man against the police car and put him in handcuffs, the remaining police proceeded to search his vehicle. Much later, as I came home from the beach, I saw the same scene. This time the blue lights were absent. The young man I had seen in handcuffs several hours earlier was returning to his car alone. He got in his vehicle and went on his way.
This is not the first time I have seen someone arrested. I am grateful for the police officers who work to ensure public safety. But something about this particular situation left me feeling uneasy.
One of our agenda items at Protestants for the Common Good is Faith and Criminal Justice. Through my work with PCG, I have become convinced that the American prison system is broken and that, as Christians and as U.S. citizens, we are called to focus less on a system of punishment and more on one of rehabilitation and restoration.
Currently, there are more than 2 million people incarcerated in the United States prison system—the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. Beginning in the 1980s and 90s, crackdowns on crime led to policies that try juveniles as adults, privatize prisons, eliminate parole, and incarcerate low-level drug offenders in lieu of providing them with drug treatment programs.
There are neighborhoods within a stone’s throw from my own in which nearly 80 percent of young black men are living with criminal records. This means they will exist under legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives regardless of the nature of their crimes. Some of these men will be unable to find jobs, unable to secure housing, and many of them will end up back in prison.
Recidivism, the rate at which ex-offenders return to prison, is astounding: a 2002 national survey showed that among nearly 275,000 prisoners released in 1994, 67.5% were rearrested within 3 years, and 51.8% were back in prison. Clearly, this is a system that is not working.
So what is our response to this vicious cycle?
Christians have a tapestry of illustrations to draw upon. On the one hand, we see Jesus, who himself was a victim of criminal injustice: arrested, tried, and executed by the Roman government, charged for little more than political dissent. On the other hand, we see the redemption of the Apostle Paul, who first was an accessory to the violent murder of St. Stephen, holding the coats of the angry hoard as they stoned him to death for his religious beliefs. Paul lived to find himself imprisoned for his own beliefs after his conversion to Christianity.
Perhaps the best example of Christians working within the system to correct injustices is that of John and Charles Wesley who dedicated much of their lives to prison ministry and reform. Care for prisoners, justice for prisoners, and yes, even grace for prisoners are essential parts of the Christian message.
In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
We are dealing with a system that is clearly oppressive. It is possible, however, to re-build a system that is so obviously broken—to focus on ending the cycle of criminal activity, not perpetuating it. As Christians, we are called to create a system that punishes criminals in a reasonable manner in accordance with the crimes they have committed, and offers aid to ex-offenders as they find new life on the outside once their time has been served.
May the Spirit of the Lord be upon us as we work together to bring good news, proclaim release, and let the oppressed go free.