What human dignity has to do with criminal justice reform

July 12, 2017

On April 10, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin signed into law comprehensive criminal justice reform, making it easier for former inmates to obtain employment and allowing prisoners to work for private companies while completing their sentences. The sweeping measures were recommended by Bevin’s Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council.

In a break from hyper partisan gridlock, the law received overwhelmingly bipartisan support from Kentucky lawmakers (the law was adopted by the Senate 36-0 and the House 85-9), and was backed by organizations with wide-ranging ideological viewpoints including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), U.S. Justice Action Network, and Christian ministries.

Key aspects of the new law include:

1. It removes the government restriction on obtaining professional licensure due to a prior criminal conviction.

Previously, felons, regardless of their offense, were barred from applying for occupational licenses. Similar to most states, Kentucky law requires licensure for the majority of jobs ranging from hairdressers, barbers, bus drivers, working in construction, and surveying property. By removing the barrier to licensing and returning decision-making power to licensure boards, the new law provides former inmates access to thousands of jobs that require a license. While licensure boards retain the power to deny licenses based on qualifications, criminal conviction alone no longer automatically precludes someone from obtaining a license.

2. It allows private companies to locate and employ prisoners while they serve their sentence.

This provision provides a means to earn income. Real-life, marketable job-skills that are learned also enable inmates to acquire meaningful employment upon their release. The law stipulates that workers can designate part of their income to meet child-support or victim-restitution payments.

3. It targets drug addiction, the root cause of much criminal activity, through the creation of a drug supervision pilot program (Angel Initiative) that encourages people addicted to drugs and prescription pills to seek help at any state police post without fear of arrest.

Through this initiative law enforcement personnel will work to help connect people to programs and resources designed to combat drug addiction. Local law enforcement agencies have already begun to implement the program and the hope is that Kentucky will become the first state with a state-wide program.

Human dignity

Kentucky’s criminal justice reforms represent a sound and balanced public policy approach to issues that deserve careful attention from Christians concerned about human dignity. By pursuing policies and designating resources that promote justice and offer the hope of redemption, Kentucky is charting a path in step with the Bible’s revealed truth about the intrinsic worth and value of men and women created in God’s image.

While advocating for the new measures, Governor Bevin said, “A bloated, overreaching criminal justice system can rob people of hope. People robbed of hope are robbed of their basic human dignity; people robbed of their dignity are ultimately robbed of their humanity; and people robbed of their humanity make inhumane decisions involving themselves, their families, and their communities.”

Incarcerated people, like all people, are valuable and deserve to be treated with dignity.

Recognizing the underlying issue of dignity, Bevin rightly recognizes human dignity as basic to what it means to be human. To undermine a person’s dignity is to demean their personhood. The Bible roots this inherent dignity in the imago dei; the truth that man is created in the image of God. This means human beings visibly represent God to the rest of the world. Because of this, every person possesses constitutional value.

This is true even in a post-fall world distorted by sin. Even though man no longer properly images God, the image remains, albeit in marred form. But despite sin’s deadly effects, the Bible teaches that God still values his fallen image bearers. In fact, he loves them so much that the eternal Son became incarnate (Immanuel, literally “God with us”), lived an authentically human life, and died for humanity’s collective sin. On this side of the cross, every person is now invited to accept Christ and live with him forever. This is a stunning statement on the sanctity and dignity of human life.

These foundational Christian truths should inform an evangelical approach to criminal justice reform. Incarcerated people, like all people, are valuable and deserve to be treated with dignity. Christians understand that God grants governments and their representatives’ legitimate power to exercise the sword of judgment against lawbreakers. However, Romans 13 teaches that God-appointed governments are not to be a terror to good conduct (Rom. 13:3). Rather, they promote justice and encourage virtue.

Concern for the vulnerable is a hallmark of biblical justice. Defining justice, Tim Keller explains, “The justness of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups [the vulnerable]. Any neglect shown to the needs of [these] is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity but a violation of justice. God loves those with the least economic and social power, and so should we.”

Arguably, those currently incarcerated and those recently released from American jails and prisons constitute the most overlooked group of vulnerable people. Thousands of former inmates are released every year who cannot find gainful employment. Many are denied licensure to almost every entry-level profession and possess no marketable skills. When correctional facilities prioritize removing offenders from society but shirk the responsibility of rehabilitation, high recidivism rates should be expected. Currently one third of inmates return to prison within three years of their release. This means that out of Kentucky’s 25,000 prisoners (95 percent of whom are not serving life sentences), over 8,000 of them return to prison.

Recognizing this reality in Kentucky, Governor Bevin said last year, “Even when a person’s physical prison sentence ends, the stigma of incarceration generally continues in perpetuity, establishing a near-irreversible cycle of crime and punishment.” Thus, to break this cycle, legislators in Kentucky worked together to offer current and former inmates tools for pursuing a viable second chance.

This new law is a worthy model because it targets the epidemic of America’s growing prison populations by confronting root causes that contribute to recidivism and it acknowledges and addresses the hardships experienced by former inmates unable to find employment. Because Christians care about the dignity of everyone created in God’s image, these reforms should be commended.

David Closson

David Closson, M.Div., serves as the Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview at Family Research Council where he researches and writes on issues related to religious liberty, human sexuality, and the development of policy from a biblical worldview. Currently, David is completing a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics (with a … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24