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Is Ending Mass Incarceration a Christian Imperative?

Inimai Chettiar,
Brennan Center's Justice Program
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March 9, 2012

Pat Robertson favors legalizing marijuana, according to an article in yesterday’s New York Times. Robertson called our nation’s current drug policies “completely out of control,” saying “Prisons are being overcrowded with juvenile offenders having to do with drugs. And the penalties, the maximums, some of them could get 10 years for possession of a joint of marijuana. It makes no sense at all.”

He’s right: America’s prisons are full of nonviolent drug offenders, put there by a failed 40-year war on drugs. Our prisons are also full of people serving unreasonably long sentences who no longer pose real dangers to society. Our love of incarceration doesn’t make sense – not from a racial justice or fiscal perspective, and, at least according to Robertson, not from a Christian perspective either.

Other Christian groups have also begun to speak out about what they feel is the religious imperative of ending mass incarceration, especially in the face of stark racial disparities. Last year, I wrote about working with Prison Fellowship to reform our broken justice system and how Catholic GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is calling for fewer prisons. The United Methodist Church’s (UMC) General Board of Church and Society has taken a stark stance against the private companies that profit from mass incarceration. As Bill Mefford, director of civil and human rights for the UMC’s General Board of Church and Society, wrote on our blog, there is “a renewed passion among United Methodists to end mass incarceration and to make the U.S. criminal justice system truly just and fair.” And last month, Black faith communities across the nation came together at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference to discuss mass incarceration as the new Jim Crow.

Robertson’s comments have snapped into focus the reality that ending mass incarceration is something the American Christian community can rally around. There are Christians who believe it is a moral imperative to address mass incarceration, especially in the face of such stark racial disparities. According to Neill Franklin, a Christian who leads Law Enforcement Against Prohibition: “If you follow the teaching of Christ, you know that Christ is a compassionate man. And he would not condone the imprisoning of people for nonviolent offenses.” Robertson, Franklin, and many others demonstrate that fighting one of the largest human rights atrocities in the world, overincarceration in the U.S., can be an issue around which churches across the country galvanize.

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