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September 8, 2008

"Jail and Jesus"

The title of this post is the title of this terrific column in USA Today by Tom Krattenmaker, which begins with a question that ought to be asked of everyone running for national office who makes much of their faith:

The Bible is heavy on redemption, and the plight of prisoners is a recurring theme in the New Testament. With 1 in 100 American adults incarcerated, are Christians doing enough to address the root causes of this prison explosion?

Here are some more snippets from today's must read:

"Jesus for President!" So proclaims a progressive Christian movement aiming to tweak the national conscience. Recent trend lines in the country suggest an even more provocative tagline for our consideration: "Jesus for Parole." That's right.  Jesus is imprisoned — at least in the view of an increasingly vocal set of Christians spurred into action by some deeply troubling truths about America and our bursting-at-the-seams prison system.

The concern seems as well placed as it is challenging. The United States has crossed, for the first time, a dismal threshold: One out of every 100 American adults is in prison, according to the Pew Center on the States.  Five states have reached the point where they are spending as much or more on corrections than they do on higher education systems. To place it all in perspective, consider that America has approximately 5% of the world population but about 25% of the world's prison population.

The fact that violent crime, according to the Justice Department, has dropped over the same three decades of surging prison-population growth poses a complex tangle: Is less crime the product of get-tough enforcement and sentencing, or are we just incarcerating more low-level offenders who don't need to be in prison? Probably some of both. But whatever the case, the situation is enough to chew on the conscience of any follower of a religion that emphasizes compassion and redemption.  Multitudes of Americans are languishing in prison — and it's all suggestive of something deeper afflicting the soul of the nation....

Andrew Skotnicki is a former Catholic priest and ex-prison chaplain with a challenging proposition for the nation's religious believers: Those 2 million men and women in America's prisons?  They're Jesus, he says.

Skotnicki, author of the book Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church, is not suggesting that convicts are all misunderstood angels who should be let loose. He sees great value in penitence — the process of transgressors' removal from society followed by reflection, reform and acceptance back into the community.  But our prison system falls appallingly short of that ideal, he believes.... "The Scripture's pretty clear," Skotnicki says. "There's a real affinity for the imprisoned.  God hears the cries of the imprisoned throughout the Scriptures.  Whether the prisoners in question are in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, whether they're mass murderers, sex offenders — whoever — Jesus says that when you visit a prisoner, 'you visit me.' "...

Is the world's No. 1 "Christian nation" ready to acknowledge the humanity of prisoners and follow the courses of action that might logically follow — including work on those aspects of "the system" that have contributed to America becoming the world leader in incarcerations?  If not, count on prison ministry remaining a very active front.  Because the nation's believers are going to have a lot of Jesuses to visit behind those prison gates.

September 8, 2008 at 10:46 AM | Permalink

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Comments

What's so hard to understand about the fact that every person in prison is one of us. At different times and under different circumstances, don't be so cocky to believe that that couldn't very easily be you. Nobody starts out saying I want to be a mentally ill/ drugdealer/thief/ crackhead/white collar fraud guy when I grow up. But still it happens.

I see an ADA every Sunday in church. I don't know why he even bothers. Perhaps he's trying to save his own soul and repair some of the damage he has caused to countless families by seeking maximum charges and maximum sentences, by being a part of the problem and only doing what he is told by the DOJ instead of doing what is right. But you'd never know it when Monday morning rolls around. Compassion? Redemption? Those words are lost on those who are part of the problem.

...There but for the grace of God go I.

Posted by: babalu | Sep 8, 2008 11:49:46 AM

We are not a "Christian nation." We ae a nation of hypocrites; we are a "brood if vipers " I recall a poem by Steven Vincent Benet: If Jesus came back today we would crucify him again. We have no mercy, no compassion.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Sep 8, 2008 12:03:01 PM

Babalu, You raise some interesting arguments, but some of your inferences might be problematic.

The ADA probably does not work for the DOJ. Instead, he is likely a state prosecutor, and therefore does not take orders from the DOJ.

As a practical matter no prosecutor can always seek the maximum sentence for all crimes. This simply would not lend itself to plea agreements, which, apart from dismissals, are how most cases are resolved. You would have to show some evidence that a given prosecutor always seeks the maximum sentence for all crimes regardless of the facts. You did not.

Not all prosecutors live to put everyone in jail. Sure, some do. But, I think that only 1/3 of them are in love with the smell of handcuffs. Another third believe that they have a vision of justice that attempts to genuinely make society better, depending on their maturity their vision is more or less nuance, and usually involves some degree of rehabilitation. The final third see it all as a game, which, by coincidence is the mindset of many public defenders.(And a healthy one, too, I might add.)

Finally, it is a bit of a stretch to say that people in jail are “one of us.” Most of them quit school. They did not bother to go to graduate school. They are very, very different than us.

Posted by: S.cotus | Sep 8, 2008 12:14:58 PM

Indeed, the Bible speaks much about mercy and forgiveness for those who repent. But, with the recidivism rates so high, one wonders where's the repentance? It's a sword that cuts both ways.

Posted by: | Sep 8, 2008 1:19:15 PM

I used ADA as a catch-all. He is, in fact a prosecutor in federal court.

As a practical matter no prosecutor can always seek the maximum sentence for all crimes. This simply would not lend itself to plea agreements, which, apart from dismissals, are how most cases are resolved. You would have to show some evidence that a given prosecutor always seeks the maximum sentence for all crimes regardless of the facts. You did not.

I wasn't aware that Ashcroft's September 2003 Memo to all federal prosecutors restricting their discretion to enter into plea agreements with white-collar criminals had been withdrawn and rescinded in its entirety. In an effort to make the prosecution and punishment of federal crimes more uniform, the Ashcroft memorandum instructs prosecutors to prosecute all viable actions, seek the maximum sentences allowed, and enter into plea bargains only in certain limited circumstances. There's your facts. This administration's reprehensible history is full of such facts.

Not all prosecutors live to put everyone in jail. Sure, some do. But, I think that only 1/3 of them are in love with the smell of handcuffs.

Only 1/3? Well I feel better now.

Finally, it is a bit of a stretch to say that people in jail are “one of us.” Most of them quit school. They did not bother to go to graduate school. They are very, very different than us.

Sooooooooooo much wrong with that that I don't know where to begin. That's what separates us? Education level? Bother to go to graduate school? As if graduate school was an opportunity others never bothered to complete. That has to be the most obtuse statement you have ever made here. I myself worked 2 jobs at the same time through college and 2 through law school and I still count myself lucky to have been able to make the most of the opportunities given to me. Others worked even harder, but simply did not have the opportunities I did. They were no different than I, or you. Life, family emergencies, finances, and many other factors, all interrupt and change our course. How nice for you that you had a very easy life and have never had unavoidable distractions large enough to pull you from your chosen road. In some instances, you're a lucky man.

But they are us, every one of them. And for anyone who seriously believes that line you wrote, and they in fact work in the criminal justice system, it's time to quit. The harm they are causing by their blindness and arrogance far outweighs any good they may achieve.

Posted by: babalu | Sep 8, 2008 1:41:35 PM

I think it's better to keep the Bible out of the conversation. When people are feeling vengeful, they will find some part of the Bible to justify their mood. When people are feeling merciful, they will point to another part of the Bible to justify their mood. As anyone who is honest and has studied the Bible can tell you, you can use the Bible to justify just about anything under the sun, or Son for that matter.

As for mercy, I don't doubt that it's a real spiritual and emotional response. But as far as I can see, it's very difficult in practice to pin down what a merciful response is in specific situations. All sorts of people who feel they are being merciful wind up with all sorts of different responses. I am skeptical of the "I'm better than you because I'm kinder" mentality. It strikes me as a cover for a hidden viciousness all it's own.

Posted by: Daniel | Sep 8, 2008 2:20:44 PM

“I wasn't aware that Ashcroft's September 2003 Memo to all federal prosecutors restricting their discretion to enter into plea agreements with white-collar criminals had been withdrawn and rescinded in its entirety.”

That isn’t what the memorandum said. In fact, plea-bargaining and prosecutorial discretion are alive and well. Moreover, since you do not actually point and quote to the text of the memo, I wouldn’t go so far as to call your summary a “fact.”

Yes. If there is anything that separates Americans it is class. Class is usually (but not always) indicated by education level. Get used to it. Most of us won’t associate with uneducated “people” because, quite frankly, they simply lack any of the values and experiences that real people have. Sure, they might have sob stories, but that doesn’t mean the law should change for them.

I think Daniel has a point here: getting playing with the bible just invites all sorts of smugness and silliness. Moreover, Prof. Berman’s commentary alludes, “mercy” isn’t really a value of criminal justice. (Rehabilitation is.) If the laws are going to be “merciful” then that is for the legislature to do. However, not all legislators want to come out and declare that they will be “merciful” on crime.

Posted by: S.cotus | Sep 8, 2008 2:52:58 PM

It is the policy of the Department of Justice that, in all federal criminal cases, federal prosecutors must charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense or offenses that are supported by the facts of the case, except as authorized by an Assistant Attorney General, United States Attorney, or designated supervisory attorney in the limited circumstances described below. The most serious offense or offenses are those that generate the most substantial sentence under the Sentencing Guidelines, unless a mandatory minimum sentence or count requiring a consecutive sentence would generate a longer sentence...

Here's the link at the DOJ's own site: http://www.usdoj.gov/opa/pr/2003/September/03_ag_516.htm

I completely understand an attorney's adversarial stance and a refusal to give an inch, even in the face of clear, proven and easily discoverable, historical facts. But I lower my head in shame of my profession when the argument becomes more important than the truth.

Most of us won’t associate with uneducated “people” because, quite frankly, they simply lack any of the values and experiences that real people have.

I'm just...wow. That's a mighty tall pedestal. If I shouted I doubt you could hear me. But luckily, since you do not actually point and quote to the text of this elitist imaginary poll/survey, I wouldn’t go so far as to call your summary a “fact.”

Posted by: babalu | Sep 8, 2008 3:41:19 PM

But I would like to take an informal poll now.

With 1% of Americans currently incarcerated, have any readers here who consider themselves religious in any way, ever taken the opportunity to visit one of them?

Posted by: babalu | Sep 8, 2008 3:49:27 PM

The key language in the Ashcroft memo is "readily provable." Many prosecutors will bend that concept to the benefit of the defendant and it is very difficult to challenge later upon review. Scotus is correct, plea bargaining is alive and well in the federal system. The 90% plea rate can mean nothing less.

Posted by: mjs | Sep 8, 2008 4:52:25 PM

This subject will always be debated and the evil forces fueling it will continue to gain ground until we begin to change within ourselves. The solution is simple, change begins at home and within us and when we as individuals begin to show compassion and love for our neigbor and each other then and only then will we see change. Jesus came to set an example of love and forgiveness. One day, everyone will be before the judgement seat and will have to give an account for their actions and true justice will prevail. So show mercy and mercy will be given!

Posted by: Rickey | Sep 9, 2008 11:53:27 PM

I am a pastor and serve as a director of ministry for a transitional home program for men out of prison. Jails and prisons are becoming more difficult to visit all the time. Currently in our area you can only visit 2 prisoners a week. We are also finding it very difficult to find people to be released to our homes. We house sex offenders as well. According to justice figures Sex offenders recidivism rate is less than 5% Can anyone explain why we treat them with such ridicule and fear when those who do drugs and sell drugs to our kids are not on national registers for life. Their recidivism is much higher. Do not hear me wrong...Any harm of a child is not acceptable. But the fear society has is preat weird.... The lack of forgiveness for sexual sins is pretty sad. Especially considering how well treatment is working. See: Bethelministries.com

Posted by: David McKellip | Sep 13, 2008 12:27:59 AM

Operation Freedom Bell- Buy a bell, We send a Bible to troops. only ten dollars http://www.operationfreedombell.com

Posted by: Operation Freedom | Dec 5, 2008 1:46:45 PM

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