Philadelphia Detention Center
(MCC Photo/Silas Crews)

MCC East Coast supports a prison program at the Philadelphia Detention Center, a minimum-to-medium security prison.

Two Gospel parables shed light on what is required to restore victims and offenders when a crime occurs.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, a man is assaulted and robbed on the road to Jericho (Luke 10:30). The priest and the Levite, authoritative figures in moral and legal matters, neglect the victim. It is the unlikely Samaritan who is moved to compassion and attends to the victim’s needs.

The parable of the Prodigal Son gives insight to the restoration of the offender. After dishonoring his father and squandering resources, the son returns with remorse (Luke 11:21). The father and community, much to the older brother’s chagrin, embrace and reintegrate him.

The U.S. criminal justice system has relied on a punitive approach to justice, requiring violators to pay off their guilt without meaningful accountability or rehabilitation into society. In the 1970s, lawmakers in the U.S. took this to a new level, deciding to get “tough on crime” and wage a “war on drugs.”

This was launched to deter drug use and trafficking, but it quickly became a system that targets communities of color. Legislation such as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 imposed mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug dealing, creating much harsher sentences for crack cocaine offenses than those of powder cocaine.

Crack arrests are typically conducted in inner-city, African-American neighborhoods suffering from unemployment and the lack of other resources due to globalization, deindustrialization and white flight.

With the support of law enforcement in conducting militarized drug raids and using the “stop-and-frisk” rule to round up individuals, this legislation has led to the mass incarceration of African-Americans at six times the rate of Anglo-Americans, even though drug use by both groups is comparable.

Compounding the problem, once prisoners are released, their prison history prevents them from accessing needs like housing, education and employment. Two-thirds of those released from prison return within three years.

While people who have gone through the criminal justice system are typically seen as offenders, many have fallen victim to structural racism — disproportionately harsh sentences, corrupt law enforcement and discrimination upon re-entry.

Fortunately, conversations to reverse the tide of mass incarceration are happening in Congress. This fall, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced new reforms. The Senate Judiciary Committee began debating bills related to criminal justice this month.

These bills include the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would give judges discretion to impose sentences below the minimum requirements, and the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would expand judges’ discretion while shortening minimum lengths. The Smarter Sentencing Act would also retroactively apply a law that reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, reducing racial impacts of the “war on drugs.”

Other bills support re-entry, such as the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act. This bill would allow prisoners to earn sentence-reduction credit through a re-entry program.

Like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son’s community, we are called to respond to harm and crime with compassion and justice. Pray and urge lawmakers to address the justice system with compassion and justice.

Printed with permission from Mennonite World Review.