A Christian group that focuses on prison issues declared Tuesday that followers of Christ have a duty to repair the nation’s broken criminal justice system, which relies too much on locking people up in order to keep the public safe.
“Our country’s overreliance on incarceration fails to make us safer or to restore people and communities who have been harmed,” James Ackerman, CEO of Prison Fellowship ministries, said during a news conference at The National Press Club.
The Prison Fellowship on Tuesday released its Justice Declaration, a justice reform guide for churches to minister to inmates, their families and their communities.
Evangelical leaders cited a “crisis of overcriminalization” by pointing out that 2.2 million people are being held in U.S. prisons, more than those incarcerated in China, Russia or any other Western nation.
“The time has come to fix our criminal justice system,” said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. “The Justice Declaration is a call for us to do our part. What we need is concerted action.”
The Prison Fellowship and the coalition of evangelical leaders said the declaration, signed by about 100 Christian leaders from across the nation, is grounded in biblical truth and calls for a “fair and redemptive” justice system — a concept with bipartisan support.
Appeals within the declaration include advocating for proportional punishment sentences, devising alternatives to incarceration, investing in the discipleship of incarcerated people and redoubling efforts to prevent crime.
“We have a criminal justice system that does not stop crime, but in many cases actually furthers crime — making criminals out of those who are not yet criminals [and] ignoring those who have been victims of crime,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “I think most of us in American life can agree our criminal justice system doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. We should fix it. And, as evangelical Christians, we should be among the first to say so.”
Dimas Salaberrios, pastor of New York’s Infinity Bible Church, said he is living proof that reaching out to those involved in crime can change lives.
As an 11-year-old in Queens, New York, Mr. Salaberrios said he wanted to be the biggest drug dealer in the U.S. By age 16 he had landed in Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex. He returned to dealing drugs after his release, and upon encountering his parole officer, he fled to Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Mr. Salaberrios attributes his escape from drugs and crime to three women who prayed for him. After immersing himself in a Baptist church, he decided to repent and confessed his crimes to a judge in New York. The judge pardoned him after seeing his transformation.
“This declaration is so powerful. It’s so needed. And as the body of Christ, we can change a community and change our nation,” Mr. Salaberrios said. “I’m living proof that when you grab somebody out of the pits of hell and you turn their life around, they can be great contributors to society.”
The church, and its history of caring about justice, stands in a unique position to push for criminal justice reform, the coalition says.
“Justice issues are biblical issues. There are thousands of churches with prison ministries,” Mr. Anderson said. “Evangelicals have been leaders in prison ministry, and we still need to do more.”
According to a Barna poll commissioned by the Prison Fellowship, 87 percent of Americans said restoration should be the goal of the justice system. The percentage was slightly higher among practicing Christians.
Yet in the same poll, 53 percent of practicing Christians said society should make an example of someone who commits a crime, even if it means more severe punishment than the crime deserves.
“This is why, in part, the Justice Declaration is needed now more than ever,” Mr. Ackerman said. “On account of our Christian faith, we call for a justice system that is fair and redemptive for all.”
The Prison Fellowship was founded in 1976 by Charles W. Colson, a special counsel to President Richard Nixon who served seven months in prison for a Watergate-related crime.