At Work & Public Square

The Image of God in Each of Us Could Change How Christians View Prison Reform

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On Monday, January 26th, faith leaders gathered in Washington D.C. to discuss restorative justice as a Christian approach to the criminal justice system.

The United States is home to more incarcerated citizens than any other nation in the entire world. With 25 percent of the world’s prison population behind bars in the U.S., prison reform is an issue of rising bipartisan support in Washington. It’s also a huge concern among Christian social justice advocates, especially since there is a strong link between incarceration rates and poverty rates and reform may greatly improve overall human well-being.

The event was hosted at the Family Research Council and organized by Justice Fellowship, an outgrowth of Prison Fellowship, Chuck Colson’s ministry to prisoners. Justice Fellowship was started to transform the injustices within our criminal justice system.

Heather Rice-Minus, senior policy advisor at Justice Fellowship, describes restorative justice as,

An approach to the criminal justice system that recognizes and advances the dignity of human life. It prioritizes harmed party participation, promotes accountability of the responsible party, and cultivates community engagement.

Two current legislative areas of focus for Justice Fellowship includes limiting debt penalties for responsible parties and improving the victim compensation system by increasing program efficiency, minimizing financial waste, and getting more money into the hands of victims.

Justice Fellowship is also focusing on making change in which you can participate directly.

Reforming Language to Reflect the Image of God

Rice-Minus believes language changes culture. She encourages everyone to refer to convicted criminals released from prison as “responsible parties” instead of “ex-offenders.”

“Responsible party” respects the dignity of the individual because it acknowledges their responsibility of a crime, but it is also a forgiving term that does not define the individual based on their past mistakes.

This will not only change the way the community views their relationship with those recently released from prison, but also the way those individuals view themselves: as someone who has fallen short but is offered forgiveness and healing.

This is a crucial element for a smooth transition of the responsible party back into their community, job, and family.

Perhaps changing the language is only “putting lipstick on the pig” as one attendee pointed out. But Rice-Minus believes this is a powerful cultural shift that must take place if we truly want to be advocates for restorative justice.

Getting Responsible Parties Back on Their Feet

Imagine being released from prison with nothing more than a bus ticket and fifty dollars. About 80 percent of ex-offenders end up going back to prison.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) located in Houston, Texas works to help former inmates start businesses. Rice-Minus mentioned PEP as one admirable organization working to restore justice.

After an application and screening process, top candidates are selected to participate in the program. In the program, they are linked with business academics in mentoring relationships and study a rigorous MBA-level curriculum in order to learn the business skills they need to become successful entrepreneurs.

100 percent of graduates have a job or start a business within ninety days of graduation. PEP is not just helping former inmates find work, it’s helping them rediscover their humanity, their Imago Dei.

Learn how to get involved here.

How Should Christians View Prison Reform?

Rice-Minus asked the group if they think Christians view prison reform through a lens of their faith. The general consensus was “no.”

  • “Christians don’t get behind issues unless it’s black and white,” one attendee chimed in.
  • Others voiced their concern that Republicans and Democrats were more involved with prison reform than the church.

The exact reason for the lack of church involvement in prison reform is unclear, perhaps because it’s more of a “gray” issue without an easy biblical answer, or maybe it’s just because most Christians just don’t have the luxury of spending time diving into the details of the problem.

Regardless, there is one thing all Christians can agree on: criminals are redeemable, and justice means treating them as such.

Rice-Minus calls the church to step up and act on the issue of criminal justice. She used Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s explanation of the three ways the church can act towards the state (Taken from Bonhoeffer’s The Church and the Jewish Question):

  •  “Ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e. it can throw the state back on its responsibilities.”
  •  “Aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.”
  •  “Not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself. Such action would be direct political action, and is only possible and desirable when the church sees the state fail in its function of creating law and order.”

According to Bonhoeffer, the church is required to act if the law of the state is unjust. Whether it’s “putting a spoke in the wheel itself” through legislative action or “bandaging the victims under the wheel” through a simple change in language, the church can be a powerful force in restoring justice and helping responsible parties rediscover their Imago Dei.

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  • Paul Mueller

    This would have been a nice place to talk about the injustice and the waste of the war on drugs. It is the leading reason why the US has such a high incarceration rate. Perhaps you will discuss it in another post. ..

  • Dale Little

    “Responsible party”…political correctness. On 2nd thought it might be nice if I could be a “responsible party” instead of “sinner.” Does have a better sound. If only the Apostle Paul had thought of that, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: no responsible parties shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.

    I don’t want to be too harsh, but I just can’t stand political correctness, and that is what “responsible party” is, but I don’t think we should intentionally think up the worst thing to call them either. I ministered to prisoners off and on for 25-30 years until I ended up going to work with a state prison system in 2004, after which I was not allowed to work as a prison volunteer any longer. I was an area Director with Prison Fellowship for 5 and a half years prior to that, and later became a sergeant at a close custody prison. I still care about prisoners and after retiring in a few more months, I will probably return to ministering to prisoners. I have seen both sides, and as a Christian I am definitely not against prison reform, but I think it deserves much thought and we need to recognize that as Christians we may not see everything the same way. I hear a lot about how we have so many people incarcerated, but I don’t hear in the same breath that we also have one of the lower homicide rates. Could there possibly be a connection? Are there sensible reforms we can get behind? I am sure there are, but let’s be honest, there are no perfect justice systems, so let’s proceed with caution and not try to get knee jerk reactions by just throwing out numbers, and then have to contend with more crime on the streets.

  • Biju George

    Is church to reform society by white-washing facts ?? Will a terrorist who plants bombs on a plane be reformed if we call him “explosive handler” and not terrorist ??

    How does church reform the society ?? by watering down facts ??

    Church is to reform the society by being what it is suposed to be “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth ((1 Timothy 3:15).

    Church’s job is not to reform society by whitewashing its corruption. Church is to reform society by being “the pillar and ground of the truth.”

    It is NOT by social work that church reforms society, but by truth – the truth said in (1 Timothy 1:15) “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

    Church reforms society by truth which is gospel. Church reforms the society when church walks in accordance to the gospel and proclaims the gospel (being the pillar and ground of the truth).

    It is in Christ that a sinner should find his or her worth and value, NOT in polished terms. A sinner (which is anyone of us NOT just the prisoner) should know he/she is a sinner before God and God has provided a way to be a saint – in Christ.

    Is prison population the biggest problem in our society ?? if we open our eyes, we can very easily see it is not so. In spite of all the good that we do as a society (in terms of charity, etc.) morally we are the strongest negative influence on humanity now – consider what moral values we impose on generations and nations, it is stunning !!!!

    The solution to that is NOT whitewashing truth with nice terms, rather by holding on to truth and proclaiming truth.

    What favor church should do to a prisoner is to lovingly communicate that God has made provision for him/her to be forgiven and cleansed so that he/she can trust in gospel and view himself/herself as forgiven and cleansed and precious in the sight of God, and that hence he/she can live a meaningful life useful for self and the society.

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