What follows are direct quotes from the 50-page final social statement adopted by the ELCA.
Social Statement Document
Because mass incarceration causes significant harms, both personal and social, the ELCA strongly urges those who make and administer correctional policies to take all appropriate measures to limit the use of incarceration as a sanction for criminal offenses. Toward that end this statement identifies three specific paths: pursue alternatives to incarceration, reform sentencing laws and policies, and closely scrutinize national drug policy.
A fundamental transformation of mindset about criminal justice is required that challenges the logic equating more punitive measures with more just ones.
As this statement is adopted, one in 34 adults in the United States is under some form of correctional control and more citizens are imprisoned as percentage of the population than in any other country on earth, even those with comparable crime rates. The U.S. spends 60 billion dollars every year for corrections alone and they who work in the criminal justice system of then feel stressed to the breaking point. People of color and people living in poverty are disproportionately harmed by problems within the system. Concerned that so many cries- from victims, the incarcerated, their families, communities, those wrongly convicted, those who work in the system- have not heard, the ECLA is prompted to speak and act.
Often we have been negligent or allowed fear or bias to dictate responses to crime.
Over the past generation, the adjudicative process has been significantly affected by changes to sentencing policies. This church affirms the importance of equal treatment in sentencing, but expresses the concern that sentencing reform has become synonymous with increasingly harsher sentences.
Massive overcrowding contributes considerably to the dehumazing problems in the U.S. prison system. Inmates fear physical and sexual violence from each other and staff and worry about threats of future violence if reported. Gangs often control the culture of prisons. Inmates are powerless in interactions with correctional staff, some of whom degrade inmates through language and physical intimidation. All inmates experience despair from lack of control and inexpressible loneliness from separation.
Massive overcrowding today worsens conditions to the point of inhumane treatment of the incarcerated. Dangers to physical safety are real and declining health through poor conditions is likely. Cost-saving measures have caused some governments to contract with private firms to incarcerate offenders, raising many ethical questions.
A contributing factor to inhumane conditions involves the increased proportion of the mentally ill in jails and prison, currently well over half of the population. As the institutionalized mental illness population of the U.S. has been reduced by more than 80 percent over recent decades, many of those released have ended up homeless or in prisons. Imprisonment is not therapeutic by nature. Placement in jails and prisons has the effect of criminalizing mental illness, and puts the mentally ill at risk for exploitation by other inmates. The incarceration of those with special needs without sufficient services contributes considerably to prison volatility. The ELCA has addressed the needs of people living with mental illness and noted problems related to the incarcerated in its 2012 social message “The Body of Christ and Mental Illness.”
Reform sentencing laws and policies
Numerous sentencing policies have been adopted since the 1980s, including mandatory minimum sentences, habitual offender laws, truth-in-sentencing laws and sentencing guidelines. Their implementation has led to increases in the use of incarceration and in the length of sentences, and has limited judicial discretion in the sentencing process.
Mandatory minimum sentences that impose lengthy fixed punishments on offenders and prohibit judges from considering mitigating factors, have been used most extensively in response to drug-related offenses.
There is mounting and persuasive evidence that the war on drugs has had a disproportionate impact on people living in poverty and people of color. Law enforcement practices regarding drug offenses often have targeted disadvantaged communities, and the sentencing policies regarding drug crimes have had racially disparate effects. Despite the fact that Caucasians and African Americans engage in drug offenses (both possession and distribution) at similar rates, Black people have been far more likely than White people to be arrested for drug offenses.
First, the criminal justice system must acknowledge the racial disparities, and address the implicit and explicit racism that persists there; second, it must recognize the special needs of juvenile offenders; third, it must stop the privatization of prison facilities; and fourth, it must foster the full reintegration of ex-offenders into the community.
Acknowledge racial disparities and end discrimination
Recognize the special needs of youth offenders
Aware of the mounting evidence of the system’s deep and abiding problems, the ELCA calls for the adoption of a variety of reforms. The leading concern is to decrease the incarcerated population, but other reforms delineated in this statement are significant in their own right.
At a deeper level, however, this statement recognizes that a more fundamental transformation in thinking about criminal justice is required. It calls for a transformed mindset, one that counteracts the logic equating more punitive measures with more just ones. This mindset challenges current undertones of vengeance, violence and racism and permits everyone in the criminal justice system to be seen as members of human communities, created in the image of God and worthy of appropriate and compassionate response.
The ELCA recognizes that retreat from unduly harsh sentencing policies and the over-utilization of the incarceration may be motivated by economic factors, rather than by a moral critique of the way the system functions. Improvement for any reason is important to the individuals involved, but this church maintains that responses to criminality should be made on theological, moral and rational grounds as well. Changes made simply for economics are less likely to endure.
Today it is important to join with others of good will to challenge the flawed public consensus about crime and criminal justice. Until a shift occurs in the public consensus, criminal justice policies likely will persist that recognize neither the injustice nor the inefficiency of many of our current responses to the crime.
The ELCA therefore recommits itself to ministry with, for, to and among the many, many people whose voices cry out within our criminal justice system. “For what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humble with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
Related to mass incarcerated rates is the troubling emergence of much more punitive attitude toward the incarcerated. As the population grows, services are being greatly reduced or eliminated, such as educations and recreational opportunities or access to counseling and spiritual care.
Since 2004, more than 20 states have enacted or proposed legislation to reform sentencing policies. These legislative changes have focused on several types of reform. Primary attention has been given to increasing sentencing options that divert drug offenders from incarceration to community-based treatment alternatives and expanding sentencing alternatives to incarceration for other non-violent offenders.
Author’s note: Compressing 50 pages into two and a half is not the best way to pay justice to the task force and all the work they did conducting the study over the five years, but it is a start in echoing the words of wisdom found in the report. They are well written and coincide with many of the philosophies of my own work.