Time for jus­tice re­form is now, lead­ing evan­gel­i­cals say

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY SARAH NEL­SON

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.

SARAH NEL­SON / THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Dr. Rus­sell Moore, Pres­i­dent of the Ethics and Re­li­gious Lib­erty Com­mis­sion, says evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians must lead on crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form.

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