In any area of inquiry, evangelicals turn first to the Bible, which reveals the truth about both God and human beings. The Bible is remarkably transparent about human shortcomings — even, or perhaps especially, the shortcomings of its heroes.
There is no whitewash; the full range of human depravity is on display. Murder, rape, armed robbery, abuse, slavery, betrayal, adultery, violence, greed, deception — it’s all there. The Bible is clear that all human beings are sinners and, apart from Jesus Christ, are incapable of reaching their God-given potential.
Evangelicals are also people known for our focus on good news. Our name itself is taken from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον which means “gospel” or “good news.” Evangelicals believe that no human being is beyond the reach of God’s redemptive love and power to transform. And so we never give up on people, no matter what they have done.
We also believe that God graciously limits the power of evil to consume humanity. Government itself is a gift from God for the common good, and shares in the divine task of establishing order and restraining evil. So evangelicals are not surprised by crime, and are supportive of the appropriate law enforcement, judicial and penal functions of government, while recognizing that government itself is fallen and in continual need of reform.
Evangelicals appreciate both the freedoms which we enjoy as Americans, and the rule of law that undergirds those freedoms. We support neither anarchy nor tyranny. In our recent history we have not been immune to the general trend toward a more punitive approach to criminal justice — sometimes caricatured as “lock ’em up and throw away the key.” But this tendency stands in sharp tension with the inherently hopeful message of evangelical faith, something that is consistently reflected in NAE statements on criminal justice reform.
Nearly 30 years ago the NAE adopted a resolution on sentencing reform, citing overcrowding resulting from harsh sentences as a key factor in the unacceptably high recidivism rate. The resolution states,
Criminal offenders should be punished as a matter of simple justice. However, the punishment should advance the public interest and, whenever possible, provide restitution to the innocent victim. Dangerous criminals must be imprisoned to protect society. However, half of those in prison have been convicted of non-violent offenses. As an alternative or supplement to incarceration, Biblically-based sanctions such as restitution would benefit the victim of the crime and society in, general, as well as help to rehabilitate the offender. Incidentally, the cost of this approach would be only a fraction of incarceration.
In 1997, as the nation’s prison population ballooned to more than 1.6 million, the highest rate in the world, the NAE adopted a resolution on the church’s responsibility to prisoners. This resolution emphasizes the fundamental human and spiritual equality of non-prisoners and prisoners, some of whom are fellow believers constituting the “church-behind-the-walls.” Even more remarkably, prisoners are seen as agents and resource persons from whom outsiders can learn about the experience of God’s grace within the prison walls.
This radical re-visioning of the all too prevalent image in secular circles of prisoners as unworthy of human love and attention is rooted in Christian faith. The increased care and concern for prisoners can be traced to the exponential growth in direct evangelical engagement with prisoners and their families, led by Prison Fellowship and a host of lesser known prison ministries. 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.
In light of these concerns, the NAE encourages Congress to take several steps toward the reform of our broken criminal justice system:
- Establish a Criminal Justice Commission that will undertake a top to bottom review of the whole criminal justice system. This should include a look at all sentences in the criminal code, including especially the mandatory minimum sentences that often rob judges of much-needed discretion in fitting the punishment to the specific circumstances of each crime and offender. The idea of a Commission has been championed by Senator Webb of Virginia, and as he will be retiring at the end of this session, new sponsors will be needed.
- Expand the use of alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, with a focus on victim restitution and community service. Partner with churches and community groups to provide mentors, worksites and social support.
- Insist on a prison environment that promotes rehabilitation. Consider evaluating and rewarding prison wardens on the recidivism rate of their alumni. Hold prison administrators and guards accountable for the welfare of all prisoners under their care. Special attention must be given to full implementation of the long overdue standards for preventing prison rape and sexual abuse. Strictly limit the use of solitary confinement, which can have devastating consequences for inmates’ mental health.
- Increase and simplify access of chaplains and volunteers. Countless prisoners have been rehabilitated through encounters with chaplains and volunteers who visit, tutor and befriend prisoners. The experience is equally transformative for the volunteers. Too often prisons erect unnecessary obstacles to volunteer programs that could do much good. Congress can hold hearings on the issues and develop appropriate incentives for improvement.
- Support ex-offenders as they re-establish their futures. The Second Chance Act has provided important support to programs assisting ex-offenders. It should be reauthorized and fully funded. Investment in re-entry programs will lead to cost savings through lower recidivism rates. Urge the FCC to cap interstate phone rates from prisons, so that prisoners’ families can afford to stay in touch with their loved ones behind bars.