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What Christians think—and what the Bible says—about criminal justice reform

Feb 13, 2020

Today, nearly 2.2 million Americans are in prison or jail, and approximately 70 million Americans have a criminal record. Prison Fellowship® believes the Church has a unique capacity and calling to respond to the crisis of crime and incarceration. That's why we hosted the Justice Declaration Symposium in Washington, D.C., an event that brought together 80 pastors and church leaders—including ERLC President Russell Moore—to sharpen one another in the calling to restore those affected by the criminal justice system.

Moore served as the event’s keynote speaker. In his opening remarks, he said, “One of the biggest challenges that many of us in ministry have is dealing with multiple constituencies at one time.” Some will ask why bother ministering to those who have done bad things. Others will say justice reform distracts the Church from its mission. Some will think doing advocacy work makes you too political, and others will not think you are political enough. 

To better understand how different American Christians approach criminal justice reform, we commissioned a nationwide poll, conducted by the Barna Group. Here’s what we learned. 

What American Christians think about justice reform

The study revealed some hopeful trends. For example, practicing Christians are significantly more likely than other Americans to agree strongly that restoration should be the goal of the justice system. 

Similarly, because of their beliefs about the inherent dignity of each person, practicing Christians (especially evangelicals) strongly agree that prison conditions should be safe and humane and that caring for prisoners is important. The belief in second chances also ranked high among evangelicals. 

Not all the findings were worth celebrating, though. For instance, only one in five Christians said their church was involved in raising awareness about criminal justice. In fact, criminal justice was ranked as the social issue of least importance to respondents’ churches among several options. 

Also worrisome is Christians’ perception of the crime rate. Sixty-nine percent of practicing Christians and 81% of evangelicals think the incarceration rate in America is rising. But the crime rate has in fact been decreasing steadily since 1960. Meanwhile, the country’s incarceration rate skyrocketed, until a modest decline began a decade ago, thanks to criminal justice reform efforts. Researchers believe that no more than 25% of the decline in crime can be attributed to incarceration. Thus, we have not only misunderstood the problem at hand, but overly relied on incarceration as the solution, despite its devastating consequences on families and communities. To appropriately approach criminal justice issues, Christians must first have an accurate grasp of the situation—and what God’s Word says about it. 

The call to justice reform

What Christians think on any issue should be shaped first and foremost by the Bible. 

Moore, in his address to the pastors and church leaders at the Justice Declaration Symposium, said, “When we are shaped and formed by the kingdom of God, that means that we're going to have a different vision—a different view of what matters. And a different vision and a different view of who matters.”

To appropriately approach criminal justice issues, Christians must first have an accurate grasp of the situation—and what God’s Word says about it.

That “who” includes all those affected by crime and incarceration, from the victim to the community to the incarcerated. In Matthew 25, Jesus specifically calls out prisoners as people who count among “the least of these.” Even with knowledge of this calling, the Church doesn’t always know the answers to every difficult situation, but explained Moore, that’s OK. He added, “What we do know, though, is that we have an accountability before God. Do we act in those capacities in a Christ-like way, or in a non-Christ-like way? Do we try to ignore our responsibilities, or do we seek to act justly?”

Ultimately, whether we get involved with justice reform is shaped by our view of personhood. To this end, Moore reminded the audience that “our incarcerated brothers and sisters are joint-heirs with Christ."

Practical tools to help you get involved

At Prison Fellowship, we are working to equip Christians with the tools and information they need to get involved in justice reform. Here are some ways you and your church can take action:

You can access all these resources and more for free here. We hope these tools help you and your church respond to God’s call to seek justice.

Heather Rice-Minus

Heather Rice-Minus is the vice president of government affairs and church mobilization for Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. Read More