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Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores by Dominique DuBois Gilliard
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Shocking news broke last week when President Trump signalled that he would support the bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation working its way through Congress. This was surprising, but it also didn’t come out of nowhere. The long road to making this happen started probably fourteen YEARS ago, and it’s not a straight shot. If you visit our website, Christian Civics dot org, we have a blog article with a timeline of how this piece of legislation developed, including some information on who the key players were and what the major milestones and setbacks were. And, I’ll be honest, if I had to file this history as a specific kind of story, there are some stretches of it that I’d maybe be more likely to call a farce or a cautionary tale instead of a drama.
But that shouldn’t take away from how significant the legislation being considered really is. In our last episode, we mentioned how the mid-term election results had a little something for everyone to be frustrated by, but this is almost the opposite. The FIRST STEP Act, as it’s called, has a little something for everyone to get behind—especially after the mid-terms, when it came back as something broader and more comprehensive than it was originally.
It’s not a done deal. There’s still a pretty good chance that it might not even make it to a vote in the Senate, and we’ll update that timeline on our blog for another week or so if anything major happens one way or the other. But this is also an issue that it’s worth pausing to look at a little more deeply, especially for Christians.
A lot of issues that get debated in politics—ESPECIALLY when you’re talking about politics at the local level, but this is still true at the national level, too. A lot of the issues that get debated when we talk about politics don’t necessarily sit the same way to people in different parts of the country or different life stages or different backgrounds. But when it comes to our criminal justice system—the way policing is handled, the bail process, the way cases are tried and sentences administered, the way our prisons are run and what happens after someone gets out of prison—these are things that, basically, everybody who looks at these issues deeply, or who has first-hand experience with them in any way, agrees need to be changed.
How we got to a point where we have policies in place that the majority of people across the political spectrum are dissatisfied with is a whole different story. At least part of it has to do with the difference between campaign rhetoric and the realities of governing—a tension that sometimes, to me, feels like it might be getting wider and wider. But the big takeaway for now is that, Republican, Democrat, independent, apathetic—for people who care about the criminal justice system, the biggest difference of opinion isn’t usually whether it’s broken, but about the best strategy for fixing it.
Most Americans who care about these systems and processes, and who have put in some time to become knowledgeable about them, want to see them repaired. But Christians have an extra level of motivation, because prisons and prisoners and a broad definition of justice are all central to our faith. One of the ways scripture frames up our relationship to God is by casting us as the prisoners and God as the judge, the defense attorney and the emancipator. And even if freeing the captives wasn’t one of the ways scripture describes God’s work in our lives, there’s still the fact that a significant portion of scripture is either written by or about prisoners. Sometimes they’re prisoners justly; more often they aren’t; but our faith is rooted in the stories of people like Joseph and Daniel and Schadrack, Mischak, and Abednego. Large portions of the New Testament were written by Paul and John from prison, and who exhorted their readers to visit prisons to preach and encourage.
So, in addition to that timeline on our blog, I want to share an excerpt from a conversation I had recently with Dominique DuBois Gilliard, who is the director of racial righteousness and reconciliation for the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination, as well as an adjunct professor at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. He’s also the author of Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores.
I reached out to Pastor Gilliard because I wanted to hear a little bit more about how he understands the relationship between Christian witness and American criminal justice. If we’re going to be responsible members of our communities, active parts of helping to steer this ship, what is our vision for criminal justice going to be? How do we think about and talk about the strengths of our criminal justice system and its weaknesses.
Pastor Gilliard argues that a Christian vision for criminal justice doesn’t just punish wrongdoing, but also repairs brokenness and affirms human dignity. We are not all called to the same thing, but we are all called to something for the sake of providing opportunities for rehabilitation and transformation. Every congregation has a role to play.
And just a quick note, the audio for this interview is a little…wonky? Is wonky the right word? We’re still working on the best process for recording interviews from afar. Thanks for bearing with us on that—we hope to have a lot of these questions worked out soon.
Now, we’re going to jump into my conversation with Pastor Gilliard as he starts talking about the tension between how our criminal justice system is advertised and the actual results it produces. After the interview, we’ll come back together to talk about this a little bit more, including a quick preview of some more interviews we’ll be publishing on this topic, and then we’ll end in prayer together. But now, here’s Pastor Gilliard…
Dominique: …and, I think another really important thing is that our criminal justice system presents itself as a place of really providing opportunities for rehabilitation and restoration. But, right now, our criminal justice system is really a system that is predicated upon isolation and doesn’t really have any tangible pathway for healthy reintegration for people after they’ve served their time.
And there are really some dehumanizing realities to our criminal justice system today, where 90 thousand people each day are sentenced to solitary confinement, which involves people being locked in a cell in utter darkness for 23 of the 24 hours of a day, given access to human contact and sunlight for one hour a day; which many researchers have actually determined is not incarceration but is more akin to torture.
Rick: And you brought up the notion of providing more transitional programs to help people reintegrate back into society after their sentence is completed. Why should we be concerned about that? if their sentence is a punishment for an infraction they have committed, isn’t the state’s interaction with them supposed to be finished at the end of the sentence?
Dominique: Yeah. When we talk about incarceration today, most people use the moniker of you’re paying your debt to society. But, unfortunately, because of so many of the laws and regulations, particularly for people who go to prison for a felony conviction, they’re forced to continue serving time after they reenter society. So, for an example, in many states when you incur a felony on your record, you forever lose the opportunity to vote and partake in our democratic process. You also cannot serve on juries, you also cannot be a beneficiary of any governmental subsidy, be it staying in governmental housing, or being on food stamps.
But, in addition to that, what many people don’t realize is that in a number of states if I went in on a felony charge and my wife and son ultimately fell on hard times and they needed to get on governmental assistance while I was incarcerated to help subsidize the income that I would have been making as a bread winner, when I get out of incarceration, and I’ve actually paid my debt to society and I’m trying to reintegrate into society, it is illegal for me to move in with them. Because they are receiving benefits from the government and as someone with a felony record, I cannot be in the same household as someone who’s receiving those types of benefits.
And so, it makes it really hard to reintegrate into society without a support system, without your family being able to walk alongside of you, and to have people who are really trying to be community to you and with you.
Rick: So, for Christians who are trying to help be salt and light to the communities we’re embedded within, who are trying to help promote a biblical vision for human flourishing, One of the foundational visions for what it means to be a healthy human in Scripture is to not be isolated, not be alone. The first thing Scripture says God identified as “not good” was for a person to be alone. But, it sounds a little bit to me like what you’re saying is, a lot of the follow-on laws we have in place that follow people who are incarcerated after their sentence is completed, actually push them away from any chance of becoming healthier.
Dominique: Yes. And I think it’s really because of the reality that our criminal justice system equates punishment with justice; and so, we actually think that justice has been served when a punishment has been distributed. And we also consider criminal activity as a violation against the state and not against communities or individuals. Because of that, we see a number of times where victims of crime actually want to advocate for a different sentence, and sometimes a less punitive sentence than what is passed down. But, because of the realities of things like mandatory minimums, judges don’t have an option of actually giving the kind of discretion that they might want to based off the particularities of the case.
Rick: one of the things that the legislation that was announced this week does is change the length and approach to mandatory minimums. Can you just take a quick moment to explain what are mandatory minimums?
Dominique: So, mandatory minimums are laws that say that if a crime fits a certain category, the judge has no choice but to pass down this level of sentencing, this nature of severity. So, for example, there are certain crimes that regardless of what else might have been going on around it contextually, a judge has to pass down a minimum of a 25 year sentence.
You’re actually starting to see this ethical crisis occur within the judiciary in a way that we hadn’t seen before. we’re seeing judges actually step down from the bench because they are saying that their hands are tied because of mandatory minimums and they have no choice but to enact an injustice because they can’t take the context of the crime seriously in sentencing.
And I think that wrestling from judges really stems from some of the ways in which mandatory minimums have bred these grotesque disparities racially. I think the most popular disparity that most people might have heard of is the disparity that exists between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. The only real difference is that crack is supposed to have a more intense but shorter high, and powder has a little bit less intense but longer high.
Up until 2010, for the exact same amount of crack and powered cocaine, the person who used crack would get 100 times more severe sentence than the person who used powder, even though it’s the same substance. Barack Obama said that in 2010 that he was gonna fix that disparity, but he only fixed it partially. And, with the Fair Sentencing Act, he moved the disparity down from 100:1 to 18:1.
But presently, there’s still an 18:1 disparity that sits on the books. Most professionals in the field say that there’s nothing that would legitimate that kind of disparity.
And, while that disparity, is not racial in its language or verbiage, we actually know that practically disproportionately crack is used by black and brown people, and powder is used more by Caucasians. And so, you actually have this racial disparity where we see the number of black people who are incarcerated having grotesque disparities. Right now, black men represent 6.5% of the U.S. population, but 40.2% of the U.S. incarcerated population. but part of the reason why that disparity is so grotesques is because when black people are getting sentenced; i.e, like the disparity between crack and powder, they have been more punitively sentenced and they actually end up spending more time behind bars, longer time behind bars for the same offense.
Rick: Even if they’re sentenced at the same rate, they’re not going to be incarcerated at the same rate, because their incarcerations will be longer.
Rick: One of the imperatives that Christians are implored to do in the New Testament is visit those who are imprisoned. I know you’re very involved with a ministry to people who are in prison. I was wondering if you could share a little bit about what that ministry is and ahm a little bit more about what is the character of Christian faith that you see when you’re visiting and ministering to people who are incarcerated?
Dominique: Yes. So I am connected to a program in North Park Theological Seminary here in Chicago, where we partner with State Bill Correctional Facility, which is a maximum security men’s prison. And we go in and the seminary creates a combined learning community where half of the students in a classroom are seminarians who are being trained for Pastoral ministry and the other half are men who are serving time behind bars. And, within this combined learning community, you take courses together, you seek degrees together, and we now offer a full blown Master’s program for men who are behind bars.
And, what you find is that the stigmatization and the stereotypes and assumptions that both groups make about one another are challenged in the midst of this communion, this common learning environment. And you find that the stigmatization that many of the seminarians had about who is prison, why they were in prison, and the sweeping indictments we make about the ethical nature of everyone behind bars, are really challenged. Especially when we’re in class and we’re reading the Word and you see men who are behind bars literally quoting Scriptures in ways that seminarians could never even dream of; myself, I could never even dream of. I mean, the way and the intensity and the intimacy that many of these men have in their relationship with Christ and their ability to be able to quote Scripture, chapter and verse, is really humbling.
But, I think also in addition to that, what we see is that there are a number of men who sincerely and authentically regret the choices that they’ve made, or the one choice that they made that led them behind bars. Many of them have found Christ behind bars, and many of them are so zealous for Jesus that they are actively disciples who are making disciples behind bars. So much so, that that one of the things that was really revelatory and surprising for me was that there are actually men who are so deeply discipled in the faith that they’re actually being shipped out as prison missionaries to other prisons that don’t have witnessing communities, and they’re actually starting Church plants there. And I got really convicted.
Rick: While they’re still incarcerated?
Dominique: While they’re still incarcerated.
Rick: legally, how does that come to pass? That’s a really surprising and exciting thing to hear.
Dominique: Well, when you actually are a part of the system, prison transfers are a pretty common thing to happen. So, it’s not actually that rare to have someone transfer from one facility to another facility. There are usually reasons but in this case, it’s almost like you’re transferred for good behavior, because you are an exemplary model of what the possibility of restoration and reformation can look like. So, you might be somebody who’s a very healthy model where you are but they believe that you and the Chaplains, through support and the communal support programs like the one we do or everyday parishioner coming in and doing Bible Studies and things like that, they might think that you actually can be sent out to be a model at a different community that might be having some challenges in having the example like this for men and women to latch onto and try to emulate.
And so, in these cases, there are a number of seminaries who actually started programs like this. So, North Park has one, there’s one at Calvin College, Duke Divinity School has one, New Orleans Baptist Seminary has one, and we’re seeing this move within higher education, particularly religious higher education where people are starting to realize the necessity of breaking down some of these walls, and they’re realizing how much of the body of Christ is actually behind bars. I mean, right now, we live in a nation where we have more people incarcerated than any other nation in the history of the world. We presently live in a reality where there are more prisons, jails, and detention centers than there are degree granting institutions.
And in many parts of the nation, there are more people living behind bars than are living on college campuses. And so, we’re seeing the Church actually awaken to this reality and part of the response is, okay, if this is where the masses are, how do we go and be with people in a way that Matthew 25 instructs us to? And how do we take passages like Hebrews 13:3, which call us to remember the incarcerated as if we ourselves were incarcerated? How do we take those passages seriously and go embody our faith in these stigmatized, scandalized places that most people aren’t willing to go?
Rick: And, I think that brings me to a question a little bit off of your book. In Chapter six of Rethinking Incarceration, you provide some examples, some stories, of Protestant Reformers who have engaged with the criminal justice system in the past.
Infallible Judge of the living and the dead,
You’ve weighed our iniquity and found us wanting—and then you took our punishment upon yourself so that our sentence could be commuted and we could be set free. You saw us justly exiled from your kingdom, and you went into the wilderness to reconcile us to you. You saw enmity exist between us and our fellow man, and you came to this earth to reconcile us together with Christ, making us a new whole creation.
You’ve called us to live out that story in every dimension of our lives, commissioned us to let it be the ordering principle of our lives, commanded us to make our work and our relationships into microcosms of the story of mercy and justice intertwined that you’ve written us into.
There are many ways in which the very practical justice systems in our country don’t reflect that story of truer, more desperate, more restorative justice that you’ve so mercifully made us a part of. But while those systems are broken, you’ve also made us custodians of them.
We don’t always wield that power well. We are told to stake our identities on you and you alone, to rely on Christ for our comfort and validation and motivation, but we still find ourselves thrashing around, grabbing for things to help us keep track of whether we can be considered good or bad, worthwhile or a waste of time, valuable or cast away. And whether or not we’ve been to prison, whether or not our loved ones have been to prison—these often end up being benchmarks we use to assure ourselves that we’re part of the “good half” of society. This thing that was a mark of your prophets, your apostles, and, in the end, your very Son is also something we look down upon. Something we hide from. Something we want to feel superior to.
Forgive us for that arrogance. Strike our hearts deeply with the knowledge that the same Christ we turn our eyes upward to is the Christ whose whole life was a road to the jailhouse. We get to live because he was put on death row. We are free because he was beaten and abused while wearing chains. As we venerate Jesus, teach us to honor his image on the imprisoned.
We know that not everyone who votes, everyone who works in law enforcement or the courts or our correctional institutions, or who writes our laws understands that greater story you’ve told us, or accepts that they are part of such a story. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’ve identified us—your people—with captives and prisoners. And it doesn’t change the fact that you’ve given us opportunities to help prisoners in our world experience the same restoration you’ve promised us.
So we ask you, humbly, eagerly, and sincerely—give your people and your congregations the opportunities to make that freedom and that restoration known. Whether it is through ministering to prisoners, being ministered to by prisoners, or supporting changes to how our criminal justice is meted out, scatter your people to every corner of this system. We pray that any time an activist or a lawyer or a law enforcement officer or a politician ventures into this issue, they would be wandering in to a great cloud of witnesses already there, ready to celebrate their help and highlight for them the greater story their help reflects.
We pray for comfort and dignity and freedom for the prisoners, fairness in our courts, and healthy cultures among our policing and criminal investigations. Not so that we can be more comfortable with the way our country works, but so that we can see more evidence that your Spirit is moving in this world the way you promised it would, and so that we can get a clearer idea now of what your Kingdom will be like when it comes in full.
We pray these things in the name of Jesus, who you’ve raised up as King,