WASHINGTON — Leading Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore, apologist Ravi Zacharias and nearly 100 other Christian leaders have signed onto a declaration that calls for restorative criminal justice reform in the United States and urges Christians to unite in opposition to the nation's "misguided response to crime."
Organized by Prison Fellowship, the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the National Association of Evangelicals, Christian leaders gathered at the National Press Club Tuesday to sign the "Justice Declaration."
"The United States locks up more people than any other nation. In fact, the United States represents a mere five percent of the world's population but we house 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population," Prison Fellowship CEO James Ackerman said during the press conference. "Today, there are nearly 2.2 million Americans behind bars. There are 2.7 million children with a parent in prison and there are 65 million stumbled by the consequences of a criminal conviction."
"Our country's over reliance on incarceration fails to make us safer or restore people and communities who have been harmed," Ackerman continued. "The Justice Declaration represents a framework grounded in biblical values to guide the church's response to this crisis. It has already been signed by approximately 100 Christian leaders from across the country. ... Today, we invite Christians of any denomination or background to add their names at JusticeDeclaration.org."
The declaration reads:
"Because the good news of Jesus Christ calls the Church to advocate (or "be a witness") for biblical truth and to care for the vulnerable, we, His followers, call for a justice system that is fair and redemptive for all. The Church has both the unique ability and unparalleled capacity to confront the staggering crisis of crime and incarceration in America and to respond with restorative solutions for communities, victims, and individuals responsible for crime.
Therefore, we make an urgent appeal to all who follow the Lord Jesus Christ to:
- Affirm that the God of the Bible is a just God: justice flows from God's very character, and the works of God's hands are faithful and just;
- Treat every human being as a person made in God's own image, with a life worthy of respect, protection, and care; Foster just relationships between God, fellow human beings, and property, which will lead to human flourishing;
- Redouble our efforts to prevent crime by cultivating the "seedbeds of virtue," including families, churches, neighborhoods, schools, and other sources of moral formation;
- Care for the physical and emotional wounds of survivors of crime, ensure their safety, and support their meaningful participation in the justice system;
- Take up the cause of the poor and vulnerable, ensuring fair access to education, economic opportunity, the social safety net, and, for those accused of crimes, the instruments of justice;
- Advocate for proportional punishment, including alternatives to incarceration, that protects public safety, fosters accountability and provides opportunities to make amends;
- Preach the good news of the gospel and proclaim that true freedom in Christ is available to all, including prisoners, recognizing that His atoning sacrifice covers all sin;
- Invest in the discipleship ofincarcerated men, women, and youth, protect their safety and human dignity, and minister to the needs of families and children with incarcerated loved ones;
- Celebrate redemption in our congregations and communities by welcoming back those who have paid their debt to society, and by providing opportunities for all persons to reach their God-given potential."
Along with Ackerman, appearing at the press conference to participate in a signing ceremony were Moore, president of ERLC; Harry Jackson, presiding bishop at International Communion of Evangelical Churches and member of President Donald Trump's evangelical advisory board; NAE President Leith Anderson; and the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.
The leaders at the press conference called for state and federal criminal justice systems to embrace reforms that allow offenders who are in prison to get treatment or help for underlying addictions or problems that if not addressed, could lead them back to prison after being released. The leaders called for more restorative efforts that will allow inmates to overcome their issues and be successful once they are released back into the public. The speakers also called on churches to minister and take interest in prisoners from their community and their families that are suffering.
"Our criminal justice system exists in order to restrain evil and in order to facilitate and reform those who have committed crimes," Moore said at the press conference. "If we have a criminal justice system that doesn't stop crime but, in many cases, actually furthers crime and makes criminals out of those who are not yet criminals and ignores those who been victims of crime and [doesn't deal] with issues of addiction, then we have a criminal justice system that doesn't work and ought to be fixed."
"When we have family members left behind waiting for those who are incarcerated and wondering if anyone remembers them, the Church of Jesus Christ needs to be at the forefront of that," Moore added. "Most of us in American life can agree, our criminal justice system doesn't work the way it is supposed to. We should fix it and, as evangelical Christians, we should be the first to say so."
The declaration comes amid bipartisan opposition to a memorandum signed by Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions last month that effectively rescinded an Obama-era policy. The policy had instructed federal prosecutors to avoid charging nonviolent offenders with crimes that have unfair mandatory minimum sentences attached. The Sessions memo, however, instructs prosecutors to pursue the most serious and readily provable offenses, which opponents say could lead to "counterproductive" sentencing under current law.
Considering the declaration comes just days after Sessions defended his sentencing memo in an op-ed published by The Washington Post, the speakers at the press conference were asked to give their thoughts on mandatory minimum sentences and the May sentencing memo issued by Sessions.
"We do not believe in a system that has mandatory sentencing. We believe it removes from the judge the ability to do her or his job, which is to judge and consider the person in front of them — whether the person has repented for what they have done or whether they have taken steps to put themselves on the right path — and give them a sentence that is proportionate that the judge believes will ... lead that person to behavior that is restorative and positive for the community," Ackerman stated.
"So we do not support mandatory sentences and we think they are a big mistake," he asserted, later adding that Prison Fellowship supports sentencing guidelines, just not mandatory sentences.
In addition to the declaration, Prison Fellowship commissioned a recent Barna poll that found that 87 percent of Americans agree that the primary goal of the justice system should be to foster restoration for all involved — including the victim, community and the person responsible for the crime. According to Barna, a higher percentage of Christians than other Americans "agree strongly" with that statement, while a total of 44 percent of evangelicals strongly agree.
Other notable signatories who were not at the press conference are Zacharias, founder of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries; Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Joni Eareckson Tada of Joni & Friends International Disability Center; humanitarian and member of Trump's evangelical advisory board Johnnie Moore; and Daniel Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
In addition, notable heads of Christian denominations signed the declaration, including the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry; Foley Beach, the archbishop of the Anglican Church of North America; and Frank Dewane, the bishop of Venice & chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice & Human Development.