Race, Cages, and the Church

Criminal justice reform has become a top priority in the past few weeks, with bills in both the House and Senate poised to be marked up by the end of the month. These bills address many of the problems discussed in a previous post, and the Office of Public Witness will be present at a Senate hearing discussing the Senate bill later today. Supporting these reforms is important, but the problem of mass incarceration goes beyond legislation and requires an examination of our values.

When one in 28 children has a parent in prison, we should wonder if this really the land of the free.

When one out of nine African-American have parents in prison, we especially should wonder if this is a land of equality.

As a community of faith, we need to stand up and acknowledge the injustice of our prison system, especially in relation to its disproportionate representation of African-Americans. By understanding the causes of this unfortunate phenomenon, we can begin to develop creative ways to tackle racism in our system of mass incarceration.

Calling a system racist may seem odd, especially in a country that, since the Civil Rights Movement, generally opposes overtly racist ideology. As a church, however, we acknowledge the complexity of racism in a 1991 Annual Conference report, which, quoting a National Council of Churches policy statement, says:

Racism is personal prejudice plus power. Racism is the intentional or unintentional use of power to isolate, separate and exploit others. This use of power is based on a belief in superior racial origin, identity or supposed racial characteristics. Racism confers certain privileges on and defends the dominant group, which in turn sustains and perpetuates racism. Both consciously and unconsciously, racism is enforced and maintained by the legal, cultural, religious, educational, economic, political and military institutions of societies. Racism is more than just a personal attitude; it is the institutionalized form of that attitude.

Racism subtly pervades the structures of our society despite past efforts to eliminate it. Overturning segregation and various Jim Crow laws were important steps towards racial justice, but the conversation on race has largely been absent since then. In that complacency, mass incarceration has become a new system of segregation that, when examined seriously, proves just as controversial and problematic as Jim Crow laws.

The numbers are terrifying. Despite the fact that whites and blacks use illegal drugs at roughly the same rate, 45 percent of all drug offenders in 2011 were black while only 30 percent were white. When coupled with 500 percent increase in prisoners in the past 30 years, the numerical difference between white and black prisoners is staggering. This discrepancy is important to understand because it reveals the racist implementation of supposedly “colorblind” legislation developed during the War on Drugs.

A major problem lies in the decision to wage the drug war in poor, minority communities despite the fact that illegal drug use is comparable across racial lines. Convenience is often the justification for this behavior since poor individuals often lack an ability to commit such crimes in private space, making their crimes readily visible. Other motivations are political; far less attention is given to a drug bust in a marginalized community as opposed to middle class home in suburbia. (For a more sustained discussion of this topic, read chapter 3 of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.)

Such motivations are dangerous because they offer seemingly justifiable reasons for colorblind policy that, in practice, is racist. Racism is prejudice plus power. The ability to choose targets of police action is power. The choice to focus almost exclusively on poor, minority neighborhoods reveals the prejudice. But the moral wrongness of this practice extends beyond simple choice and into the effects it has on communities. Targeting the same minority communities creates a vicious cycle that exacerbates drug crime. Most drug offenders in these communities are addicts or dealers making barely enough money to pay rent. When dealers are taken off the street, the vacuum is filled by those with an actual need for money (these are poor neighborhoods, after all). As a result, more and more individuals get arrested, further fracturing that community.

Attempting to portray criminals as victims of societal ills, for some, seems like a weak attempt to disregard the American values of individuality and agency. These critics instead blame black men, who by being absent at home, cause the moral “degeneration” that leads these communities down a path of crime. Daring to enter a chicken-or-egg discussion, it is important to note that they are absent because of overly-aggressive, prejudiced crime enforcement. One in four black men born since the beginning of the War on Drugs in late 1970’s has spent time in prison. That this War has successfully incarcerated so many so should not be taken as a success, but as a failure to address the heart of the matter. Caging human beings en masse is guaranteed to harm a community, and mass incarceration assures this brokenness. Money that could be spent on drug rehabilitation and community development programs instead goes to a racist system of mass incarceration that costs billions of dollars each year. But most of all, this system destroys lives more than it helps.

People lose years of their lives under harsh mandatory minimum sentences and three-strike laws, only to return to a further crippled neighborhood. Worse, those years in prison are not the end of one’s punishment. Most job applications require felons to declare their criminal status, hindering their ability to get a job and thus their transition back into society. However, the legacy of a criminal record haunts black men far worse than any other group. Studies have shown that white men with a criminal record get called back for jobs more frequently black men with a criminal record and black men without a criminal record. These studies reveal the horrible cultural assumption that black men are dangerous criminals despite evidence to the contrary. Rounding up black men to put in prisons has exacerbated this false perception and only complicates law enforcement when police are given full discretion to tackle crime. Socialization works against even those who would consciously not consider themselves racist, yet from this mix of power and subtle, unconscious prejudice is born a racist justice system.

The topic of race is often uncomfortable to discuss, especially in the context of an overwhelmingly white church, but it is a conversation that needs to occur if we are to truly embrace everyone as children of God. The Church of the Brethren is making an effort to ensure that this conversation occurs, specifically through Ecumenical Advocacy Days (EAD) and Christian Citizenship Seminar (CCS). EAD brings Christians from all over to participate in workshops and prepares participants to visit lawmakers with a particular legislative “ask.” EAD 2016 takes place April 15-18, 2016, with the theme is “Lift Every Voice! – Racism, Class and Power.” This event, cosponsored by the Office of Public Witness, provides a powerful platform for Brethren to learn about and take part in racial justice work. Click here for more information or to register.

CCS occurs the following week on April 23-28 2016, and invites youth to come to Washington, DC and New York City to learn how to be faithful, impactful citizens. CCS 2016 will explore the issue of race and mass incarceration in detail, and participants will visit legislators and learn skills to enact social change in their own communities. Encourage your youth to take part in this important conversation!

In 1963, the Church proclaimed, “The deepening crises in race relations all across the land confront the Christian church with its sharpest challenges to integrity and discipleship in this century. A revolution in relations between the races is upon us. We can neither stop it nor delay it. We can only hope to help guide it by active participation in it as concerned and courageous Christians.” May our commitment to God’s justice be strengthened by remembering that those words still ring true today.

Jesse Winter

Peacebuilding and Policy Associate

Office of Public Witness

Washington, DC

A Criminal Justice System

With his characteristic humility, Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States included a stop at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility outside of Philadelphia, where the pontiff met and blessed several inmates. Though visit was not punctuated with any direct comments about US prisons, the Pope’s visit highlights the need to lovingly engage those on the edge of society, just as Jesus dined with prostitutes and tax collectors.

The harsh reality, however, is that those in the US prison system have largely been forgotten, floundering in a criminal justice system that consistently lacks justice. From the call to be “tough on crime” in the 1980s and 1990s has emerged a system of mass incarceration that punishes minor drug offenders with multi-year sentences, removes parole opportunities, and strips individuals of their dignity.

This is the first of a multi-post blog series analyzing the US criminal justice system, where I hope to inject questions of morality and human dignity into the discussion of mass incarceration. This installment will focus on the genesis and presuppositions of our current predicament, while subsequent posts will explore the racist character of mass incarceration and the abject cruelty of solitary confinement.

The US now struggles with costly, overcrowded prisons. With longer sentences and few opportunities to get out early, about 2.2 million individuals are incarcerated in US prisons – higher than any other country in the world. In fact, despite having only 5% of the world’s population, the US contributes 25% to the world’s prison population. The sheer scale of the US prison system presents many questions to policy makers hoping to balance budgets while keeping their communities safe, but few fail to critically and honestly examine the efficacy of such a bloated and tragic system, much less its moral implications.

A primary shortcoming of the US criminal justice system is its overemphasis on punishing and sequestering those who commit crimes. In 1968, President Nixon commented, “Doubling the conviction rate in this country would do far more to cure crime in America than quadrupling the funds for [the] War on Poverty.” Getting violent individuals off the streets certainly is important, but US criminal justice is now primarily retributive, limiting its capacity to ensure public safety. Instead of looking for ways to rehabilitate criminals or tackling the root causes of crime, US criminal justice is much less proactive, opting to simply segregate criminals from society.

This simplistic perspective has questionable short term benefits and undeniable long term consequences, including prison growth, high recidivism rates, and unjust imprisonment. The most obvious problem is the expansive growth of the prison population, which has increased from 24,000 federal prisoners in 1980 to an unprecedented 216,000 federal prisoners in 2013. At a cost of over $29,000 per year per prisoner, this attitude is a multi-billion dollar investment that fails to deliver meaningful results.

This failure can especially be seen in the number of prisoners that recidivate. Within three years of being released, two-thirds of all prisoners are rearrested. The vehement desire to punish masks the need for compassion to help transform individuals, leaving us with a prison system that creates a vicious cycle of criminality. Many families struggle to get by with family members in prison, and without proper support networks, a criminal record often becomes hereditary. As a result, when an individual leaves prison, they often return to broken homes and find themselves reengaging in criminal activity. This is a tragic failure. One study shows that “the most successful strategy in reducing crime is to optimally allocate resources so that after being punished, criminals experience impactful intervention programs, especially during the first stages of their return to society.” Such programs are a necessary part of a sustainable, loving solution. In disrupting paths to recidivism, prison costs should go down since fewer prisoners would return for subsequent offenses, but more importantly, they extend grace to those coming from brokenness.

Grace, faith, forgiveness – Christ calls us to these virtues, yet our current system suggests that they don’t apply to criminals. Our present system’s commitment to retribution consequently sentences thousands of individuals each year to unjust punishments. The mandatory minimum sentences developed in the 1980s and 1990s have fundamentally changed our justice system. They create strict guidelines that judges have to follow when sentencing an individual – even if they do not believe the punishment is just. Mandatory minimums were originally developed to get drug kingpins off the streets more easily, but this goal has not been met. In 2012, only 6.6 percent of all drug offenders were considered a leader of a drug conspiracy and over half of all convicted federal drug offenders had little or no criminal record. Because mandatory minimums lessen a judge’s capacity to account for an individual’s circumstances during sentencing, this “one size fits all” policy often causes even minor, nonviolent drug offenders to spend years in prison (6 years on average), greatly contributing to our current prison bloat.

These sentences are probably the most blatant example of a defunct justice system addicted to mere punishment and not social restoration. Even worse, a recent study shows that mandatory minimums do very little to actually prevent crime. It is a needless, costly system – both to taxpayers and those put behind bars. The kingpins are not the ones being punished. Instead, individuals caught in vicious cycles of poverty and drug use are sent to prison, which in turn further destabilizes their communities. Thankfully, progress is being made in Congress with the introduction of a sentencing reform bill, and more information about new legislation will likely appear in further posts. However, this bill is still only one step towards addressing the problem of mass incarceration.

Because criminals are purposefully put out of our sight, their lives as human beings are often easy to ignore. We have been trying to cut corners in criminal justice for the past 40 years, and now there is national awareness about the seriousness of mass incarceration. Jesus – a criminal under Roman law – called out during his crucifixion, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). But we know what we are doing and we know the crisis that is before us. During his visit to the US, Pope Francis commented, “Any society, any family, which cannot share or take seriously the pain of its children, and views that pain as something normal or to be expected is a society ‘condemned’ to remain a hostage to itself, prey to the very things which cause that pain.” Christ calls us to compassion, and if we ourselves want to avoid being criminal in our justice, we need to transform the mindset behind our system of mass incarceration. The first step is acknowledging the humanity of those who commit crimes, and offer solutions that are corrective and restorative, not just punitive. We must instill the values of compassion and grace into our corrective practices, for we believe in a merciful God that redeems.

Jesse Winter

Peacebuilding and Policy Associate

Office of Public Witness

Washington, DC



Iran and the JCPOA

Focus is shifting in Washington as President Obama has enough congressional support to sustain a veto against a resolution of disapproval for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that aims to reduce Iran’s nuclear program.

Though a resolution of disapproval could be overturned, supporters of the deal have announced intent garner even more support for the deal, potentially saving ink in the president’s veto pen. If successful, the United States would send a stronger message to the international community of its intent to support diplomacy in the Middle East.

As mentioned in a previous post, the COB has shown support for the JCPOA, and we do this primarily out of our heritage as a peace church with a peace witness. With approval for the JCPOA in sight, time needs to be taken to discuss what it means for us as a church to show support for this deal. Equally important, it is important to understand what it does not mean.

This deal only addresses nonproliferation in Iran – not Iran’s support of terrorist organizations, its covert attempts to destabilize regimes, nor its aggression towards Israel. This narrowness, however, is not an inadequacy of the deal since it accomplishes the goal of thoroughly diminishes Iran’s nuclear capabilities. These outlying issues with the Iranian regime have led some critics to fear that Iran’s sanctions relief will help Tehran fuel more of these illicit programs and question Iran’s commitment to following the deal altogether.

Distrust in Iran, after all, is why the US does not want Iran to have nuclear weapons in the first place – hence the comprehensive regulations in what has been called “the most robust, intrusive, multilateral nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated.” The strength of this monitoring program is endorsed by 29 of the nation’s top scientists, stating that the deal’s safeguards would prevent Iran from covertly developing a nuclear weapon.

Curbing Iran’s nuclear capacity in this zone of mistrust is the primary talking point of the JCPOA, but its capacity to actually build trust is potentially more important. US relations with Iran and the rest of the region automatically assume tension, especially because of the constant meddling of the US military in the Middle East. While simple nonproliferation is noble, the multilateral approach of the JCPOA reinforces the value of diplomacy as a pathway to holistic and lasting peace.

Said a letter from international relations scholars, “While the JCPOA is primarily a non-proliferation agreement that successfully closes off all weaponization pathways in the Iranian nuclear program, it carries with it significant peace dividends by making diplomacy and dialogue available for conflict resolution – a necessary step to tackle all of the region’s sources of tensions, be they terrorism, sectarianism, or unilateralism.”

It is here that the values that Brethren stand for can be found in the Iran deal. The 1988 Annual Conference stated, “The Brethren understand peace as something more than merely the silence of guns and bombs; it is also the presence of justice, the practice of mutuality, and the process of reconciliation.” It may sound like brash optimism to suggest that this deal paves the way to reconciliation, but to assert that walking away from the deal does this job better is ludicrous.

The real question is: Would the world be better without the deal?

One would be hard-pressed to say yes. Refusing the deal means rejecting the most comprehensive nuclear monitoring regime in history. With no restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s “breakout” point would quickly draw near, especially as international sanctions fall away. Such a scenario almost guarantees that Iran would develop a nuclear weapon, despite critics’ attempts to suggest we have better options. Once these positions are analyzed, however, it is clear that the JCPOA is the best course of action.

A moderate argument for walking away suggests returning to the table to negotiate a new deal, one that further restricts the flow of sanctions relief so that Iran is guaranteed to not fund terrorist plots. However, the reality of returning to the table with the international support of the EU and two US rivals, China and Russia, is very slim. Without the support of the international community, the US would be hard-pressed to broker a deal that is nearly as comprehensive.

The same argument same can be made against those that think any deal is out of the question. Such critics would propose that imposing stricter sanctions would be more effective in crippling Iran’s nuclear program. After all, sanctions have already made Iran desperate enough to have a conversation, suggesting further sanctions would cripple Iran until it has no choice but to fold on its nuclear program. Opponents of the deal have threatened that, since the JCPOA will survive a resolution of disapproval, later legislation will be put forth that will reinstate sanctions and put pressure back on Iran. The problem with this logic is that US sanctions against Iran have been supported by other international sanctions. Since walking away from the deal, initially or through post hoc legislation, means the US would lose international support, US sanctions would not only prove increasingly meaningless and would certainly unravel.

This leaves opponents with a third option: call for direct US military intervention. This position is the easiest to denounce given the deplorable track record of US intervention in the Middle East. Ignoring the diplomatic option is also challenges the Brethren commitment to nonviolence and promotion of sustainable peace.

In short, there is no viable alternative for this deal. This deal not only reduces the chance of Iran using nuclear weapons against the United States, but even more importantly, this deal helps keep the imagined need for the US military intervention in Iran from becoming a reality. Despite the flaws of the deal, it truly is a step forward for US relations with Iran and the rest of the region. The JCPOA shows a commitment to diplomacy and meaningful engagement with world leaders. While Iran has stated that its policy will not change once the deal takes effect, this show of good faith by the US and other nations can pave the way to a more sustainable peace as the Iranian regime and the political climate in the Middle East changes in the next 15 years.The future cannot be predicted, but the light that shines from it is brighter under this deal.

Office of Public Witness
Church of the Brethren
Washington, DC

Iran Deal: An Analysis by the Office of Public Witness

After twenty months of negotiations, President Obama and other international leaders made a landmark agreement that will curb Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. The agreement stipulates that the United States lift economic sanctions that forced Iran to the table in the first place. Israel and Saudi Arabia have spoken out about the proposed deal since Iran’s economic influence would expand, but the global community generally sees this deal as a way of promoting stability in the region. Iranian public opinion even stands in strong support of the deal since the lifted sanctions would greatly improve their crippled economy.

With international opinion on his side, President Obama has been campaigning to guarantee that the negotiated settlement with Iran passes in Congress. A vote will likely happen soon after Labor Day when Congress is back in session, so time is running out to garner support. Many members of Congress have already released statements for or against the agreement, and President Obama announced that he would veto Congress’s decision if the agreement did not pass. For Congress to override the veto, each house would need a two-thirds majority rejecting the Iran deal.

Since the deal is contingent upon sanctions being lifted, many opponents of the deal insist that the growth of the Iranian economy will allow Tehran to more easily produce nuclear weapons and conduct terrorist operations. This line of thought, however, ignores the great unlikelihood that Iran could get away with such a feat.

The intrusiveness of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program is unprecedented under this new agreement. The media has generated concern about the IAEA’s practices, suggesting that Iranian scientists will be testing their own inspection sites. This procedure is actually only a part of the IAEA’s practices, which requires that samples are tested by both Iranian scientists and IAEA officials to ensure that data is not misrepresented.

By having both parties administering tests, both groups are held accountable; in other words, Iran cannot tamper with data since it will conflict with IAEA data and vice versa. This double accountability is actually a strength of the deal, and when combined with the deactivation of over half of Iran’s centrifuges and the repurposing of Iran’s nuclear reactor, the negotiated agreement effectively guarantees that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon for the next fifteen years while the deal is in effect. Without the provisions in this agreement, we cannot guarantee Iran’s nuclear program will be stifled.

As stated in a letter signed by fifty-one Christian leaders, including the General Secretary Stan Noffsinger, “There is no question we are all better off with this deal than without it.” This unified Christian front shows the great moral significance of this deal. Too often politics controls conversations by talking strictly in terms of US interests. If we wish to be Christians committed to inviting the Kingdom of God, we cannot allow this opportunity to de-escalate conflict and address our neighbor slip away. We need to remember our kinship to others, as Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

Our sisters and brothers in Iran struggle, and now they too have a chance for at least a small measure of liberation. Even more, an Iran with a diminished nuclear program helps place the already unstable region on a pathway to peace and opens the door to reconciliation between Iran and the United States.