Criminal Justice

Position Statement

“The Peace and Justice Committee supports actions by The House of Hope Presbyterian Church and by church members to educate ourselves and take action on criminal justice in America and the effects of mass incarceration on communities of color.”

The United States criminal justice system was historically designed to uphold social control by sanctioning those who violate laws with criminal penalties and rehabilitation. IS IT WORKING?

The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons and jails — a 500% increase over the last forty years. Changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explain most of this increase. These trends have resulted in prison overcrowding and fiscal burdens on states to accommodate a rapidly expanding penal system, despite increasing evidence that large-scale incarceration is not an effective means of achieving public safety. It also has resulted in families being separated, and loss of voting rights and employment problems for those leaving the criminal justice system.

African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times the imprisonment of whites. In five states (Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin), the disparity is more than 10 to 12. More than 60% of the people in prison today are people of color. For black men in their thirties, about 1 in every 12 is in prison or jail on any given day.

Sentencing policies of the “war on drugs” era resulted in dramatic growth in incarceration for drug offenses. Since its official beginning in the 1980s, the number of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses has skyrocketed from 40,900 in 1980 to 450,345 in 20163. Furthermore, harsh sentencing laws such as mandatory minimums keep many people convicted of drug offenses in prison for longer periods of time: in 1986, people released after serving time for a federal drug offense had spent an average of 22 months in prison. By 2004, people convicted on federal drug offenses served almost three times that length: 62 months in prison. At the federal level, people incarcerated on a drug conviction make up just under half the prison population.

Action Plan

The Peace and Justice Committee will present opportunities for the House of Hope congregation to learn about our disparities in our criminal justice system and the effects of mass incarceration by considering the following questions (and others):

Does a criminal justice system based on mass incarceration effectively deter crime? 

Is crime more effectively prevented through penal corrections programs, or through social/educational programs, particularly for youth? 

Should the primary emphasis of the criminal justice system be to punish offenders, or to reform behavior through rehabilitation tools such as job training and work release programs?

 Is the expanding rate of incarceration of drug-related offenders the best way to solve the drug problem? 

Are racial disparities in the criminal justice system the result of poor socio-economic conditions in communities of color? 

Are racial disparities in the incarceration rates for communities of color the result of racial bias in our criminal justice system? 

How effective are efforts to re-integrate paroled felons back into civil society, especially into the workforce? 

1 The Sentencing Project: Trends in U.S. Corrections
2 The Sentencing Project: Trends in U.S. Corrections
3 The Sentencing Project: The Color of Justice