Rising Leader Series: Week 29 – Democracy: Equal Justice
THE LAW, THE LOCK AND THE KEY
By vote we choose the ones who write our laws
By rule of law our nation keeps the peace
Peace officers enforce the same for all
For all so safety, freedom will increase
But sometimes written laws are ill-conceived
And sometimes perfect peace is not well kept
And sometimes officers are right perceived
As biased, heavy-handed, maladept
Which is why we citizens ever must
Seek ceaselessly to winnow out the true
To filter facts so as to co-construct
A union more secure, more fair, more glued
Brave is justice served free from fear or favor
When mixed with mercy, it’s much better– braver
Rwanda, Turkmenistan, El Salvador and Cuba have something in common. They all make the “top 5” list in their prison incarceration rates. But none can beat us– the United States. We’re #1. Think about it. As you read this, over 2 million people are incarcerated in our country– up 500% in the past 40 years. Over half are Black or Hispanic.
What’s wrong with this picture? One of the five pillars of American democracy is equal justice. Yet in our laws, in policing, in sentencing, in corrections practices and in rehabilitation practices– we have not yet achieved it. It remains the work of leaders like you to do so. That is how we form a more perfect union. Jesus countered hate with love and sin with forgiveness. He had a way of continuously keeping love, truth and grace in balance. Are we not called to do the same? This is how we do what Jesus would do.
Our laws define what is a crime; each crime has its punishment. But it’s easy for laws to be written unjustly.
Powder cocaine (known as the “white” drug of choice) was once subject to much lighter penalties than crack cocaine (known as the “black” drug of choice). And so our prisons filled up with black and brown faces. Lives were ripped asunder. Though this specific inequity has been corrected, it underscores how important it is for laws to be written with care and fairness. When not, it tears at the fabric of our democratic system– making justice unjust.
Even when crime is justly defined in law, sentencing guidelines can be unjust.
Ever-longer prison sentences don’t reduce the crime rate. All they do is destroy lives. Despite our elongated prison terms, America's crime rate is worse than 81 countries in the world. We need to remember that punishment is just the first step in redressing a wrong. The goal is repair. We need leaders of goodness who will craft just laws– with sentences designed not just to punish, but also to reform and heal– and ultimately to repair the world.
Once laws are on the books, they must be enforced.
Living as I do outside of Minneapolis, I have struggled with two conflicting narratives about policing. Both hold some truth. The world witnessed the abomination of George Floyd’s death, face pushed to the street under the knee of a police officer. We were all stricken to the core. It triggered an eruption of righteous anger, both in the US and around the world– in no small part because across America, black and brown men die far too often at the hands of police.
But it is also true that police forces across the country are filled with dedicated, courageous public servants. Their jobs are difficult and dangerous. Many police officers have retired or quit; departments are understaffed. Some believe that many who remain, fearing a deadly incident, have begun to shy away from appropriate enforcement. Now let me be clear: we can’t remain silent in the face of police brutality and racial profiling. Policing must be re-envisioned, reformed and continuously improved. However, it’s also true that we can’t ignore the reality of crime, nor how dangerous it is to fight it. There are now over 120 guns for every 100 people in the US. Since George Floyd’s death, the rate of crime (especially violent crime) in Minneapolis and cities around the country has skyrocketed.
Enforcement is a difficult task, requiring ethical officers capable of exercising good judgment and great self-control. We need leaders of goodness to lead and staff our police forces– leaders who will get enforcement right, so that all people can enjoy peace, safety and equal (and just) protection.
Judges also have a difficult job.
A just sentence redresses the hurt incurred by the victim, while also pointing the perpetrator towards correction, reform and, ultimately, rehabilitation. It’s on judges to weigh the law and its sentencing guidelines. Within those guidelines, they must weigh the facts of the case– and determine proper punishment. Yes, the debt to society must be paid. But it’s equally important to repair the world. We can’t just keep building prisons to lock away more humans. We need judges who will deliver justice both blind and equal, mixed (wherever possible) with pathways towards reformation and rehabilitation.
Part of the problem is how we see prisoners and their victims.
I once served inside a maximum security prison as a member of a prison ministry retreat team. Prior to that experience, I had categorized prisoners as “them”-- the “other”-- the “bad guys”. And it’s true that most prisoners are in prison because they have done bad (and in some cases horrific) things. But still— the chasm between “them” and “us” shrinks when you meet one-on-one in a direct, personal encounter. I came away changed from that retreat.
I learned… hurt people hurt people. Crime has a blast radius; it wounds the victim, perpetrator, families and friends. It tears at our interconnectedness. It destroys trust and engenders hate. All too often one crime begets the next– drawing entire communities into a descending cycle of violence. And all are human beings, sinners yearning to be loved. Behind the tallest walls, beyond our most manic defenses, every heart seeks God. Towards the end of my weekend prison ministry retreat, one prisoner said: “My soul was parched like a dying plant, shriveled on the ground. Now I’m watered. I’m filled up. I can feel my heart again.”
Once we connect with the humanity of both victim and criminal, once we recognize both as brothers and sisters in the human family, the question of justice becomes less cold– less abstract. God never gives up on us. The Bible is filled with repentant sinners (Moses: murder; David: murder and adultery; Paul: hate crimes and false imprisonment). Once they saw their sin and truly repented, God forgave them– and then used them to advance His kingdom. When it comes to crime and punishment, might it be that we too are called to balance punishment with mercy?
Our justice system is punishment-centric, but perhaps not victim-centric. Many victims seek more than punishment. Many wish to confront– to better understand– and, often, to forgive. Regardless of the response, forgiveness can be a way to let go and move on. I once met a woman whose family had been torn apart by a home invasion, rape and murder. After the perpetrators were sentenced and imprisoned, she decided to participate in a restorative justice program– wherein she could confront the perpetrators of this horrific crime. She described it this way: “I needed to tell them that I don't hate them. I forgive them. Now, that does not mean I support letting them out of prison. But I cannot hate them. And by sitting down to talk I can set myself and them free in a way that no one else can.”
It seems to me our encounters with victims and prisoners must be both clear-eyed and humble. Victims rightly expect the state to pursue justice. They also need and deserve both love and support. Crime exacts a terrible toll; proportional punishment is just. But we must never forget that the purpose of justice is, in the end, to heal– to restore the victim, to reform the perpetrator and to repair the world.
We all fall short of the glory of God– we’re all a work in progress– and it’s never too late for any human being to turn back towards goodness. Equal justice is delicate work, which is why its pursuit requires leaders of goodness like you.
Next week we'll take a look at equality of opportunity.
“Then he added, ‘Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.’”-- Matthew 9:13
In justice and peace,
Previous Weeks' Letters: