Christian critiques of the penal system
Feb 09, 2012
....While approaching the issues from different theological and philosophical traditions, the above authors nevertheless agree on the problems with contemporary criminal justice and together begin to trace the outlines of a solution. The problems: institutional forces benefit from a destructive status quo; the public view of prisoners makes citizens indifferent to their plight; and an emphasis on individual responsibility fails to take seriously the systemic injustice that prisoners face. The solutions: remember that prisoners, too, are made in the image of God; address the systemic causes of crime; and learn to love the people touched by crime.
All four authors find that the current criminal justice system fails to facilitate or encourage the transformation/restoration of individuals and communities. It could be doing much more. In discussing his journey to understanding the problems of the criminal justice system, Snyder recounts his surprise in learning of alternatives to incarceration known to be more humane and more rehabilitative. He describes arriving at the conclusion that alternatives are not more widely used because our culture is “held captive to a spirit of punishment” (p. 3).
One stream of influence that helps maintain punishment’s domination is the “prison industrial complex.” Logan starts his critique of the justice system by explaining how political and business interests come together to create a hunger for longer and harsher sentences, more prisons, and more prisoners. Not only do politicians use “tough on crime policies” to manipulate citizen’s fears into votes, but private companies benefit from prisons in three ways: private prison management, private sector development, and private services provision. For each of these sectors, prisoners mean profits. One special interest group Logan does not address is the correctional officers unions. According to Joshua Page, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) lobbies heavily in opposition to legislation or policies that would lower the number of prisoners. Further, it sponsors
a crime victims’ organization that is particularly punitive in its demands.
Images of the offender play a significant role in legitimizing and justifying harsh criminal justice responses. As Skotnicki points out, when we see the prisoner as “a political or moral threat” (p. 23), we open the door for any type of punishment to be imposed. Viewing offenders as less valuable allows us to warehouse and not help them. For Snyder, the Evangelical understanding of “personal salvation” reinforces the foreignness of those caught up in criminal behavior, or “othering,” which in turn enhances the neglect of the marginalized communities from which they came.
This “othering” becomes quite visible when one considers the over-representation of minorities in the prison system. Both Logan and Snyder explain how the American drug laws affect whites and African Americans differently. Logan discusses the development of racism in the United States and how penal sanctions have varied by racial group over time. He quotes a 2003 report showing that “4,810 black males per 100,000 U. S. residents were incarcerated compared to 649 white males” (p. 69). Yet, the problem is not limited to the United States; the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales notes the number of black prisoners went up by 51% from 1999 to 2002, while the overall prison population only rose by 12% (p. 30).
Furthermore, many prisoners come from difficult backgrounds with a large percentage of female offenders having experienced sexual or physical abuse. According to Logan, 75% of U. S. prisoners have a history of drug or alcohol abuse (p. 98). In describing prisoners in England and Wales, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference reports that 70% of young offenders had the reading level of a seven-year-old (pp. 21-25).