Criminal Justice: Ministry efforts not limited to people behind bars
By PAT DUNBAR
For more than 30 years I have observed the trends and public response to ministry in the criminal justice system. When this area of ministry became more personal and I became directly involved, I began to look more clearly at the impact that Christian faith can have in the lives of people within the system.
What I found was that in order to respond and share our faith in Christ we must first more clearly identify who is a part of that system.
Most people hear “criminal justice” and think “prison” but the definition is more far-reaching than the offender. Oftentimes programs are developed by the faith community that direct our energies to the conversion of the incarcerated while other members of society who have been impacted by the stress of the criminal act are left wounded along the road.
A comprehensive ministry of criminal justice, from a faith-based perspective, requires us to include ministry and outreach to the victims of the offenders where there are victims, the families of those incarcerated, all levels of law enforcement that work within the criminal justice system, the confined prisoner, and the ex-offender as they are reintroduced to the community.
According to a recent report released by the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project, at the start of 2008 there were 2,319,258 adults being held in American prisons or jails. The latest published reports show that in the state of Georgia, the average daily population being held under supervision of the Department Of Corrections was 57,026 in state prisons, 106 percent of capacity.
These numbers currently put Georgia in the upper fifth of increase in prison population; and among the eight largest correctional programs in the United States. These figures reveal that for the first time in history more than one in every 100 adults in America are in jail or prison — a fact that significantly impacts our state budget without providing a clear benefit on public safety.
· 1-in-30 men between the ages of 20-34 is behind bars, that figure is 233 percent higher for men of color.
· The female prison population is increasing at a much faster pace than it is for males.
· 1-in-53 adults in their 20s is behind bars (1.89 percent).
· The majority of all prisoners are held at the state and local level (not federal).
· World Prison Brief lists prison population rates per 100,000 residents of each country ~ U.S. tops the list with 743 prisoners per 100,000 residents, followed by Rwanda with 595, the Russian Federation with 559.
· Reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show an estimated 4.3 million violent crimes, 15.6 million property crimes, and 133,000 personal thefts were committed against U.S. residents age 12 or older in 2009. This equates to more than 20,033,000 victims.
Although we can look at statistics and get a glimpse of the tragedy and heartbreak that surrounds our justice system, we are a people called to respond to the hurt and brokenness in the world and in our community. It is important that we note that prison growth and higher incarceration rates do not reflect a matching increase in crime, nor is there a corresponding swelling in the nation’s population at large.
Instead, what we see is that more people are behind bars largely because of a wave of public policy choices that are sending more lawbreakers to prison. In addition, because of popular “three-strikes” measures and other sentencing laws, longer prison stays are being imposed on inmates.
In some areas lawmakers are experimenting with a range of community punishments that are as effective as incarceration in protecting public safety. These include a mix of community-based programs such as day reporting centers, treatment facilities, electronic monitoring systems and community service. In addition, recidivism rates have proven to be positively impacted through faith-based programs.
During the next few editions of the North Georgia Advocate we will have the opportunity to highlight the various facets of criminal justice ministry and how each of us can make an impact for Christ in these areas.
In scripture we read, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” ~ (Micah 6:8)
In this journey we will look at the many ways people in our churches and in our conference have extended the grace of God by doing justice, loving mercy and walking with God.