The United States of America was founded on the principles of “a nation under God… with justice for all….” Are we being true to our principles? Many criminologists, legal scholars, political scientists, and theologians believe we are not.
Prisons were developed in America by a religious group, the Quakers, and were intended as a more humane alternative to other forms of physically torturous punishment. The term “penitentiary” is derived from the Quakers’ aim to make criminals in solitary confinement penitent.
The United States now has the greatest number of incarcerated persons in the world. Some facts to consider:*
- The US incarceration rate exceeds other similar democratic (European) nations.
- By 2001 the U.S. incarceration rate was 686 per 100,000, compared to European rates at around 100 per 100,000.
- To look for countries with rates close to the U.S. we have to look to Russia (628 per hundred thousand) or South Africa (400 per hundred thousand).
- The last two decades of the 20th century produced a penal system that is without precedent in American history, and unlike any other in the advanced democracies.
U.S. prison populations also question America’s principle of “justice for all”:
- Race and class disparities in imprisonment are large, and class disparities have grown dramatically.
- African-Americans have been more likely than whites to go to prison, at least since the 1920s.
- Southern prisons became means of racial domination, using forced labor to farm cotton and build roads.
- Blacks are eight times more likely to be incarcerated in state and federal prisons than whites.
- More poor and minority men receive prison sentences despite lower arrest rates than twenty-five years ago.
- Prisons originally housed violent offenders, but a “war on drugs” led to an increase in the prosecution and incarceration of drug offenders—a 45 percent increase. [*Source: Bruce Western. Punishment and Inequality in America (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006), pp. 3, 14-15, 30, 50.]
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
“One of the greatest failures of the church is that it often has not applied love into the realm of justice. Christian love is incomplete when it is not fulfilled in justice. A love ethic that does not include an ethic of justice lacks the full power of love.” –Stephen Charles Mott, A Christian Perspective on Political Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 92.