Humanizing Criminal Justice

2016 Book of Resolutions, #5031

The biblical view of the criminal justice system is one that should be characterized by accessibility to all (Deuteronomy 1:17; 16:18), impartiality (Exodus 23:1-3), honesty (Exodus 23:7), integrity (Exodus 23:6, 8), and fairness to all without regard to status (Leviticus 19:15). God exhorts God’s people, “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20 NRSV).

It is later in the narrative of God’s people when justice has become subverted by greed and self-indulgence that God prescribes corrective action, as described by prophets such as Isaiah and Amos. When justice is distorted God desires for the cause of the widow and the orphan, those most vulnerable to the injustice of the affluent and powerful, to be defended (Isaiah 1:17). When injustice is committed against the poor and marginalized, authentic justice as described here is prevented from being experienced and God’s people are alienated from God (Amos 5:7, 10-13, 21-24). God is just and those who follow God must be just as well.

A justice system that reflects God’s desires for the world is one that is healing and restorative. Those who have been victimized by crime and the communities in which they reside need healing. Healing can come as safety and security are restored and the broken bonds of mutuality and shared existence are mended. Those who commit crimes must be held accountable through making amends to those they have caused to suffer, and they must be given the opportunity to return to their full place in society and community.

Since crimes are so often linked to a lack of access to resources, gaining access to resources is a necessary part of this return. As United Methodists we “support measures designed to remove social conditions that lead to crime, and we encourage continued positive interaction between law enforcement officials and members of the community at large” (¶ 164H).

A justice system must be first and foremost about humanization since God’s justice always works to bring reconciliation. Systems of retribution breed only violence and isolation. Indeed, “we can- not punish our way to a healthy society” (Laura Magnani and Harmon Wray, Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press [p. 5]).

Retributive systems of justice form barriers to the realization of the vision of restorative justice because they are tainted with explicit and implicit racial and ethnic bias, they punish children as harshly as adults, and they accommodate a two-tiered system that serves those with wealth and subjugates those without. Indeed, most justice systems do not seek healing and restoration for the people affected by crime or for those who commit crimes. Too many social and political obstacles blocking our path to achieving equal justice and safety for all God’s children exist, including:

  • Misinformed and biased public perceptions of racial and ethnic minorities that justify excessively punitive policies;
  • Inadequate public health systems that neglect serious mental illness and treatment for addictions;
  • Limited assistance and social services for victims of crime, and for children living in poverty and those with incarcerated parents;
  • Justice systems that measure success by increasing numbers of arrests, prosecutions, and incarcerations over ensuring fair and impartial justice;
  • Outdated public policies that equate crime reductions only with increased incarceration and longer sentences, and inadequately support rehabilitative programming; and
  • Inferior or absent legal representation for defendants without financial means to hire counsel.

Crime Prevention and Criminal Proceedings

Communities plagued by high rates of violent and nonviolent crime need the attention of the Church and government to heal their pain. These communities are often disproportionately poor, disenfranchised, and populated by racial and ethnic minority peoples. Sometimes victims have also committed crimes and support services are unavailable to them. The Church believes that all people have sacred worth, including those who commit crimes and those impacted by it, and deserve our attention and support in order to limit recidivism and the intergenerational cycle of crime.

Racial and ethnic profiling is never an acceptable law enforcement tool. Police and prosecutors must be trained to avoid its use even unconsciously. Special care must be exercised in the selection of persons who serve as police officers, prosecutors, and court personnel. They should be persons who possess good judgment, sound discretion, and proper temperament.

Moreover, police encounters with people who break the law must not always end in arrest. In certain circumstances diversion to a mental-health or treatment provider, homeless shelter, or outreach to a parent in the case of a child are more effective strategies to combat criminal behavior, reduce costs to the criminal-justice system, and avoid a stigmatizing arrest record.

These kinds of restorative-justice practices should be utilized within the community as a first response to criminal behavior.

Young people under the age of eighteen who commit a criminal offense should not be adjudicated within the adult criminal-justice system. A special diversion program and/or court system centered on family solutions to addressing youth behavior is most appropriate.

When the arrest of adults is warranted, criminal defendants should have access to appropriate legal representation even in circumstances when he or she cannot afford to pay for representation. Prosecutors and the court system should use utmost scrutiny in determining whether or not sufficient evidence exists to charge a defendant. Decisions about guilt or innocence are best decided by a jury of peers within a court of law. All trials and the sentencing of those convicted under criminal laws must be conducted in a public courtroom.

The United Methodist Church urges the following recommendations in the area of crime prevention and criminal proceedings:

  • Police departments publicly establish standards of police conduct and policies for promotion that incorporate training in peacekeeping, life-protecting, other service roles, and law enforcement. The standards must include strict limits on the deadly use of force;
  • The composition of police agencies should reflect the communities that they serve, including geographic residence, diversity in race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.;
  • Law enforcement agencies should be held accountable by the communities they serve. We encourage churches to coordinate events with these agencies to allow for open dialogue with the community and to safely air grievances and concerns to authorities in order to ensure a culture of trust and transparency;
  • Fair and adequate compensation for police officers, public defenders, prosecutors, and other court and law-enforcement personnel should be provided to these valuable public servants;
  • Train judges of juvenile and criminal courts in the use of non-incarcerating community sanctions whenever the offense does not involve persistent violence;
  • Encourage local churches to set up court-monitoring panels to observe court operations and proceedings. Such panels may well adopt a role of friends of the court or of advocacy on behalf of accused persons and/or on behalf of crime victims. They may adopt other appropriate procedures in the interest of restorative justice, including close scrutiny of plea bargaining and/or evidence of unequal imposition of sentences;
  • Develop appropriate jury selection procedures that would ensure the most inclusive representation, including representatives of the socioeconomic class and ethnic group of the defendants and of the crime victims; and
  • Adoption by all courts of: (a) speedy trial provisions; and (b) a presumption that a person accused of a crime should be released on personal recognizance unless an evidentiary-based determination is made that personal recognizance will not reasonably assure future appearance or represents a risk of imminent physical harm to others. Financial bond should be used as a last resort. A monetary bond can create an undue burden on individuals accused of crimes who have limited financial means and results in unnecessarily prolonged periods of pretrial detention.

Criminal Laws and Penalties

Persons convicted of criminal offenses should be subject to penalties proportional to the harm caused by the offense. In cases involving limited victim impact or no violence, opportunities to address wrongdoing within a restorative-justice framework, and outside the criminal-justice system, are most appropriate. Penalty decisions must allow for consideration of a multitude of factors in the circumstances of a case, including but not limited to a defendant’s age, intellectual capacity, mental and physical health, prior history of criminal behavior and/or victimization. Conversely, a defendant’s race, ethnicity, religion, familial status, political affiliation, sexual orientation or economic status should not be considered in sentencing decisions.

Criminalization of personal behaviors or conditions perpetuates unfair racial disparity, class discrimination, stigmatization, and wastes resources needed for other purposes. Therefore, the Church supports the repeal of laws that criminalize personal conditions or behaviors. Examples include vagrancy, homelessness, personal gambling, public drunkenness, drug use, prostitution, and real or perceived sexual orientation or consensual sexual activity. Moreover, individuals forced or coerced into criminal behavior should not be criminalized. The Church also opposes extreme sentences, including the death penalty and life imprisonment with no consideration for release, particularly for people under the age of eighteen. These extreme sentences are inherently cruel and leave out any opportunities for redemption or rehabilitation among people who commit crime.

Penal codes should prescribe a range of penalty options for courts to consider at sentencing with an emphasis on utilizing non-incarceration community sanctions wherever consistent with community protection. Furthermore, court-determined sentences that consider the unique circumstances of each case are most appropriate, rather than mandatory sentences prescribed by policymakers unaffiliated or unfamiliar with the nuances of specific criminal proceedings.

Judges and juries issuing penalties should issue publicly accessible statements to the court detailing the reasons for selecting a particular penalty for a defendant. When fines are assessed, they should be scaled to the magnitude of the crime and the ability of a defendant to pay.

Governmentally regulated programs of compensation for reimbursement of financial loss incurred by victims of crime should be encouraged, particularly as an alternative to incarceration.

Conditions of Confinement

More than 10 million people are held in penal institutions throughout the world, according to data compiled in 2013. The Church is concerned for the health and well-being of all detained and incarcerated people. Those confined in institutions, regardless of the length of their mandated stay, have basic human rights that must be protected by administrators and government officials. All confinement facilities must provide:

  • Safe and sanitary living conditions, which incorporate a zero tolerance in policy and practice for violence, including sexual violence, committed by staff or other incarcerated individuals, and a bar on solitary confinement except in extraordinary situations where the safety of an individual or individuals is in jeopardy and then only for the briefest time possible;
  • Medical and mental health care treatment services that meet community standards;
  • Nutritious foods;
  • Opportunities for compensated employment, education, recreation, and other rehabilitative programming;
  • Fair and responsive grievance systems; -Regular access to family, friends, clergy, legal representation, and the media.

Exiting Incarceration

People leaving incarceration to return to their home communities require special assistance during their transition. Communities benefit if people leaving incarceration are successful in their reintegration and do not return to criminal behavior. Families may also need aid in preparing to welcome home loved ones, particularly children who disproportionately feel the burden of a parent’s absence. The Church has a powerful role to play in the reentry process and should utilize its resources to ensure successful transitions for those leaving incarceration and the families and neighborhoods to which they return.

Discrimination against people with criminal records must not be tolerated. Stereotypes about people who have been incarcerated can result in unemployment and homelessness because of a desire to exclude people with criminal records from businesses and housing. Laws that forbid professional licenses to persons with a criminal record, regardless of the relevance of the person’s criminal history to the occupation, should be repealed. In addition, persons who commit no new offenses after a short time deserve an opportunity to expunge or erase a criminal record permanently. Moreover, laws that exclude any persons with a criminal record from the normal benefits and rights of citizenship, including publicly financed income assistance and housing, student loans, and voting rights should be ended.

United Methodist churches are encouraged to build relationships with returning citizens in their communities and congregations. Healing Communities is a framework for ministry for United Methodist congregations to mobilize existing resources within the congregation for ministry with the families of those impacted by crime and the criminal-justice system. By fostering reciprocal relationships and removing stigma and shame within congregations, Healing Communities emphasizes that good theology is an engaged missiology. Healing Communities engages in ministry with those directly impacted by the criminal-justice system and their families, and mobilizes congregations to join in advocating for “the creation of a genuinely new system” (¶ 164H).

We call upon the General Board of Church and Society to mobilize United Methodist churches to advocate for legislation that will eliminate racism and classism in the criminal-justice system; ensure equality, transparency, and fairness; and protect the human rights of all adults and children by:

  • promoting equity and transparency in courts by instituting legal representation of equal quality, regardless of financial ability, and public scrutiny of decisions to pursue criminal charges, convictions, and sentencing;
  • reassessing incarceration guidelines and reducing sentences of incarceration of persons guilty of nonviolent crimes, and eliminating extreme sentences, including capital punishment and life imprisonment with no opportunity for parole;
  • ensuring adequate government funding to support the prevention of crime, including anti-poverty measures, strong public-education systems and universal access to medical and mental-health care, services for victims of crime, services for incarcerated people and those leaving incarceration and their families;
  • protecting children from the severity of the adult criminal justice system, and ensuring the punishment of youths takes into full account the science of youth brain development and youth’s still immature impulse control and decision-making capacity;
  • creating laws prohibiting discrimination against people with criminal records; and
  • restoring voting rights for people with criminal records.


See Social Principles, ¶ 164H.

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Copyright © 2016, The United Methodist Publishing House, used by permission