Message on Criminal Legal Reform

As part of AFN's March 2018 "Faith, Equity & Inclusion in an Age of Mass Incarceration" event (Session III of the The Monsignor Edward Ryle Faith, Equity & Inclusion Event Series), the statement below has been released and we encourage people of faith to add their voices to this call and to advocate for a "fundamental transformation of mindset about the criminal legal system." 


The American criminal legal system poses a major challenge to Faith leaders, and in response, several national church and religious bodies have adopted policy statements urging significant reforms. For example, one such policy statement adopted by The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on August 17, 2013, describes the current system’s serious deficiencies and, drawing from the biblical witness to God’s wondrously rich forms of love and justice, the Statement calls on people of faith with a “holy yearning” to address the need for change in the public mindset and the need for dramatic reforms in policies and practices.

The good news is that a bipartisan movement is growing to revise major inequities and imbalances in the criminal legal system, and to substantially reduce the needlessly long and expensive sentences for many prisoners, especially non-violent offenders. Leaders in the faith community now have an opportunity to band together in a cooperative effort to push policy makers for a comprehensive reevaluation of sentencing inequities. We also need to reevaluate how the corrections system works after conviction, including the use of private prisons, poor medical and mental health care, excessive use of solitary confinement, scarce rehabilitation and community reentry programs, and restoring voting rights for those who have completed their prison sentences.

The Arizona Faith Network calls upon all people of faith, regardless of denominational or faith community distinctions, to step forward to speak and act, prophetically and courageously. So many cries of suffering and despair emerge from inequitable sentences and correctional policies — from victims, the incarcerated, their families, communities, those wrongly convicted, those who work in the system — and have not been heard.

Religious and faith communities should draw upon the wisdom of their divine powers, holy texts, and continuous teachings for inspiration in the realm of promoting healing and transformative justice practices.

In assessing the current system, faith leaders recognize many in the system who serve their professional vocations with competent and humane performance. Yet, there are serious deficiencies. An underlying punitive mindset, budgetary con­straints, and persistent inequalities based on race and class frequently challenge its basic principles and impose significant costs on all involved in the system, and on society as a whole. We support positive trends for reform such as greater emphasis on victims’ rights and needs, emphasis on restorative justice instead of retribution, community-based alternatives to incarceration, legislation that reduces sentences for certain offenses, the emergence of specialized courts, and the growing emphasis on reentry. These efforts should be funded and supported adequately.

Because mass incarceration causes significant harms, both personal and social, we strongly urge those who make and administer correctional policies to take all appropriate measures to limit the use of incarceration as a sanction for criminal offenses. Toward that end there are three specific paths: pursue alternatives to incarceration, reform sentencing laws and policies, and closely scrutinize national drug policy.

Four other imperatives also require vigorous action from policy makers: the criminal legal system must acknowledge the disparities and address the implicit and explicit racism that persists within; it must recognize the special needs of juvenile offenders; it must stop the privatization of prison facilities; and finally, it must foster the full reintegration of ex-offenders into the community including restoration of voting rights.

A fundamental transformation of mindset about the criminal legal system is required that challenges the logic equating more punitive measures with more just ones. Individuals must be held accountable, but every person in the criminal legal system deserves to be seen and treated as a member of society, with inherent worth and dignity, and worthy of appropriate and compassionate response.

Arizona Faith Network

Released at “Faith, Equity & Inclusion in an age of Mass Incarceration”
Thursday, 22 March 2018.