WASHINGTON (CNS) — Two Catholic leaders are among the first 100 Christians, most of them evangelicals, calling for restorative justice as part of a nationwide criminal justice reform initiative.
The core of the effort is the Justice Declaration, which has received the endorsement of Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network.
Other key signatories include Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; and James Ackerman, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship, which is spearheading the campaign.
Moore, Anderson and Ackerman, after unveiling the Justice Declaration at a June 20 news conference in Washington, went to Capitol Hill to meet with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Rep. Mark Walker, R-North Carolina, head of the Republican Study Committee, to press for a criminal justice reform bill.
The 10-point declaration is couched in an “urgent appeal to all who follow the Lord Jesus Christ,” it said in the preamble, adding its call for “a justice system that is fair and redemptive for all.”
It exhorts Christians of all stripes to, among other things:
— “Advocate for proportional punishment, including alternatives to incarceration, that protects public safety, fosters accountability and provides opportunities to make amends.”
— “Invest in the discipleship of incarcerated men, women and youth, protect their safety and human dignity, and minister to the needs of families and children with incarcerated loved ones.”
— “Care for the physical and emotional wounds of survivors of crime, ensure their safety, and support their meaningful participation in the justice system.”
The Justice Declaration also spoke to the “unparalleled capacity” to bring about change in this arena.
“What if all of our churches would adopt an incarcerated person? What if all of our churches would care for one victim? What if all of churches would step up to make a difference?” Anderson asked. Even if only half, or even 20 percent of churches, did so, he added, “the impact on our justice system would be great.”
“The church has been very good at ministry, but not so on advocacy,” he remarked later, calling criminal justice reform a bipartisan issue that lawmakers could approve.
“We know there is a future and a possibility for those with a past,” Moore said, adding that “born-again” Christians “know that the first birth did not take care of all of our problems.”
Dimas Salaberrios, president of Concerts of Prayer in New York City, acknowledged that without turning to Christ while in prison, “I’d either be dealing drugs or dead.”
“This is the most important civil rights step we will take in our lifetimes,” said Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., presiding bishop of the International Communion of Evangelical Churches.
“We thought we were going to get criminal justice reform at the end of the Obama administration,” Anderson said. “But, as with the end of every administration, things tend to stall.”
The Catholic Mobilizing Network’s Clifton said education and mobilization were needed to move the needle on criminal justice reform. “We have to go to the margins and the peripheries” to spread the message, she added.
Ackerman cited a Barna poll commissioned by Prison Fellowship that showed that 87 percent of respondents agreed that the justice system should be “restorative for all involved,” with Christians agreeing at an even higher percentage.
At the same time, a majority — albeit a much smaller one — of respondents said sometimes prisoners need to receive stiff sentences to be made an example of. “Giving someone more than they deserve,” Ackerman said, “is not consistent with our values.”