Baptists challenged to advocate for reform of a broken criminal justice system

By Bob Perkins

Photo: Joel McLendon
ATLANTA-It's imperative that Baptists ask tough questions in order to spark reform of the U.S. criminal justice system, according to panelists engaging the criminal justice system breakout session Feb. 1 at the New Baptist Covenant Celebration.

Wendell Griffen, judge in the Arkansas Court of Appeals, said its time for Baptists to speak out about a broken system.

"Baptists should demand that the criminal justice system stop wrongful prosecutions," Griffen said. "We who believe that Jesus was tried and punished wrongly should demand transparency in the criminal justice system."

Griffen said the recent trend has been to hire more police officers and build more prisons, but that's not a good solution.

"Just as it is ludicrous to suggest that we hire more morticians to treat cancer and AIDS, it is ludicrous to hire more police and jailors and to build more prisons to handle nonviolent drug offenders," he said. "Most of the people in prison today are not there because of violent offenses. They are there for offenses against property and nonviolent drug offenses."

Griffen said in some nonviolent felony cases, a judge has leeway in sentencing.

"Judges have the decision to fine a person instead of sentencing them to prison," he said. "For example, women whose children live in the free world and the women live in prison because of a drug offense. They could be fined, they would not lose their jobs and they would not be taken from their children. This would be a whole lot more economical to do than to house a woman in a lock-up. If I told you I could do this for one-fifth of the cost of incarceration, you'd think I would be insane not to do it."

Another place Baptists have a unique opportunity to have great impact is when prisoners are returned to the community. Dee Dee Coleman, pastor of Russell Street Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, created Wings of Faith in 2002 with the goal of returning these people to society and limiting the odds that they would go back to prison.

"Last year in our country, we had more than 7 million people who received some sort of adjudication in the court system," Coleman said. "We are in a crisis. The faith community glorifies God when we provide services to the least of these."

Coleman said too many churches act like they don't want to know who the offenders in prison are.

"We have no problem going to see the sick. But if someone says it's time to go visit a person who is incarcerated, we don't want to do it. But there are grandparents in the congregation that are raising their grandkids because one or more of the parents are in prison. There are wives whose husbands are jailed, or others in the church whose family members aren't free."

Coleman said when family members are set free, the work is just beginning.

"Not everybody is pleased when daddy comes home," she said. "If a teenage child is in the house, and he has been playing the role as head of the family, the teen will deliberately get into an argument with the father in order to get him to violate his parole."

Coleman said it's important for churches to begin the reintegration process before the person gets out. Church member volunteers begin building relationships while the people are incarcerated to start identifying their needs and the needs of their family.

"When they re-enter the community, we provide a resource center designed for the offender population," Coleman said. "For example, an ordinary service person cannot place an offender in just any job. Many times, people get out and they don't know how they are going to eat. There are special taxes and special benefits available to help but they have to be educated to find these."

Coleman encouraged the attendees by saying everyone in the church can help.

"Not everybody can do this work, but there is something for everybody to do. If you can offer a prayer, you can do this work. We want to be challenged and pushed to the limit to provide services to the least of these. It's my belief that people will do better if they knew better."

Pat Anderson is a missions advocate for Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Global Missions. He said he had been isolated growing up and wasn't confronted with the entire drama of the criminal justice system until items had been stolen from him and his wife.

"As a Baptist Christian, a lifelong church person, it still amazes me that it wasn't until I was a young adult that I didn't have any contact with someone in prison," Anderson said. "It was a new and different world. Turned to the Bible to get context and found out I had missed a lot."

Anderson said he was inspired by the stories of Joseph, Daniel and Jeremiah.

"There are stories of prisoners who inspire throughout the biblical record," he said. "It seemed like everyone in the New Testament did time. As I look at the biblical record, I cannot help but be encouraged by the people who were imprisoned."