Our Prisons Are A Crime

The Bible can unlock fresh concepts of justice that will save both money and lives.

Lucasville, Ohio, is the latest tragedy to focus America’s attention on the criminal justice system. Before Lucasville, there was Santa Fe in 1980 and Attica in 1971. The scene is horrifyingly familiar—bodies being hauled out of prison, guards held hostage, troops ringing the barbed-wire perimeter. Why Lucasville? Why Attica? Why any of this?

For starters, our prisons are dangerously overcrowded. Ohio’s prison system, for instance, operates at 180 percent of capacity. But the problem goes deeper. Our system is fundamentally flawed. We either slap criminals on the wrist or toss them into overcrowded concrete nightmares filled with desperate men with nothing to do and nothing to lose. Five out of eight people released from prison will be rearrested within three years. Our system neither protects the public nor rehabilitates prisoners.

Not only is our system a failure, it is an expensive failure. It costs, on average, over $20,000 to incarcerate someone for a year. It costs at least $50,000 to construct one prison bed. Excluding Medicaid, corrections is the fastest-growing portion of state budgets.

And the human costs of this failed system are immeasurable. Few victims of crime recoup their losses, or are allowed to participate in the justice process. Few experience the sense that justice was served.

Evangelicals, who have ready responses to abortion, homosexual behavior, and racism, are strangely quiet about criminal justice. Their silence is strange because they have available a biblical response to crime. It is called restorative justice.

In restorative justice, justice means punishing offenders in a way that restores victims’ losses and reconciles the victim, the offender, the community, and God. Brokenness caused by crime is repaired and harmony is restored. (The laws of Exodus 22 and the Zacchaeus story in Luke 19 are examples.)

What would a biblically based, restorative justice system look like? Victims would receive restitution and play an active role in the process. Nondangerous offenders would work in the community—under strict supervision—to repay their victims.

Prisons would be less crowded (more than half of our prisoners are incarcerated for property or nonviolent, drug-related crimes) so there would also be more room for truly dangerous offenders. They would serve longer sentences, enhancing public safety. They, too, would be forced to work to repay their victims.

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In addition, nondangerous offenders punished in the community would stand a better chance of rehabilitation since they would not be influenced by hardened prison dwellers. They are also spared the difficult transition from prison to community.

Finally, taxpayers would save. Punishing the offender in the community can be as little as one-tenth the cost of incarceration. And state governments would feel less pressure to build expensive new prisons.

Restorative justice is not quixotic. Many states are beginning to use these principles. Indiana, for example, diverted 1,200 prison-bound offenders into community-based punishments in 1992, saving a minimum of $12 million. Minnesota, likewise, punishes offenders at a per capita cost of one-quarter the national average, without compromising public safety.

Our justice system is broken. If we are to make events like Lucasville things of the past, we will have to demonstrate the same zeal for justice as we have for other issues dear to the heart of God.

By Steve Vamam, vice-president of Justice Fellowship

Vetoing President Patterson

The latest tempest in the Southern Baptist teacup has erupted in the sleepy little town of Wake Forest, North Carolina, home of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Paige Patterson, the new seminary president, is widely known as the principal architect of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. When he and his wife, Dorothy, applied for “watchcare membership” at the moderate-controlled Wake Forest Baptist Church, their request was denied on the grounds that such a move would very likely create conflict in the congregation. As the pastor put it, “It would be harder to discontinue that relationship than not to start it in the first place.” This is a strange set of affairs since most Southern Baptists go to great lengths to get people into their churches. Sinners of all kinds are welcomed. Patterson is one of the most colorful and controversial characters in Southern Baptist life. Apparently the mere prospect of his presence in the church was too much for these otherwise broad-minded Baptists. The pastor explained that the church had been severely wounded in the Southern Baptist “holy war.” Patterson is the person they most blame for their pain—that is, for the defeat of the moderate cause. So, let him be anathema.

No one will deny this church’s prerogative to act as it did, given the Baptist commitment to each local church’s right to define its own discipline and doctrine without interference from any extra-congregational judicatory. In former days, Baptists used to exclude prospective members for all kinds of valid reasons, such as theological heresy and sexual immorality, as well as for some invalid ones, such as skin color. However, this is probably the first case since the days of segregation in which someone has been excluded from a Baptist church simply because “he is not one of us.” One of the church members is reported to have said, “When we said we were for diversity, I guess we didn’t mean the fundamentalists!” Evidently not.

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Even some moderates are embarrassed by the Wake Forest decision. For example, members of a nearby Baptist congregation in Raleigh with an open membership policy for homosexuals have extended the welcome mat to the Pattersons. True liberals, they.

Clearly, neither side in the SBC conflict has a corner on charity. Both sides have treated each other with a malice that does no honor to their Christian profession. Yet this case presented a unique opportunity for reconciliation. Since moving to Southeastern, Patterson has been given high marks, even by his critics, for his open and respectful dealings with folks of varying political hues. He has also reached out to the community by cochairing a Habitat for Humanity project with the former dean of the seminary, a severe critic of the movement Patterson represents. Perhaps in time such acts of good will can become the seedbed from which will sprout a mended relationship.

There is a little twist to the Wake Forest drama. The church sits on the campus of the seminary whose president it has excluded. The seminary even provides heat for the church. Will the seminary now retaliate by ousting the congregation from its land? Will they cut off their heat? My hunch is that Patterson will eventually prevail—not by such tactics, but by his gracious, winsome response.

By Timothy George, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University.

How To Fix Mainline Decline

Since the mid-1960s, mainline Protestant membership has been seriously declining. While those churches have been hurting for members, they have not lacked for explanations:

Our culture’s emphasis on individual autonomy and freedom has undermined church authority; the middle class is better educated, and therefore less religious; the churches have not paid enough attention to social justice; the churches have paid too much attention to injustice and have spirituality starved their members; mainline churches no longer give clear and compelling answers to life’s questions and can no longer command members’ energies and loyalties.

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Now, in the March 1993 issue of First Things, three sociologists report their evaluation of these hypotheses. They interviewed 500 baby boomers who had been confirmed in mainline Presbyterian churches. They found that the standard theories did not match their data. Only the theory that mainline churches are weak in their ability to command commitment was partially borne out. Indeed, the only solid predictor of adult church participation seemed to be “orthodox Christian belief, and especially the teaching that a person can be saved only through Jesus Christ.”

After much analysis, the authors ask the bottom-line question: What “can the mainline Protestant denominations do to arrest their decline?” Their reply: “Address theological issues head-on … and provide compelling answers to the question, ‘What’s so special about Christianity?’ ”

The root problem of mainline denominations began long before the statistical slippage. Throughout the 1950s, their churches were growing, but the reasons were “a desire for family ‘togetherness’ and social respectability” write the article’s authors, rather than “a deep spiritual hunger.”

CT readers should immediately check any impulse to say, “I told you so.” There is a caution here for evangelicals. Research shows that while a significant portion of those who say they are born again may have good feelings about Jesus and attend church, according to pollster George Barna, nearly 30 percent of them say that all good people will go to heaven, whether or not they have embraced Jesus Christ. Another 10 percent just “don’t know.”

Barna’s data support the observation that many of today’s “successful” churches are not centers for classic Christian teaching about sin and salvation, but are “full-service” social institutions, which program their public meetings for feel-good “worship.”

Evangelical church numbers are growing in many places, but allowing a generation to grow soft doctrinally may spell disaster for the churches—and for souls.

By David Neff.

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