Voting Rights for All Citizens?

In the nation that calls itself “the beacon of democracy,” millions of citizens are denied the right to vote.  Voter disenfranchisement includes convicted felons in prisons, on community supervision, and non-convicted jail inmates awaiting trial.

          The U.S. stands in contrast to 26 European nations that partially protect incarcerated citizens’ right to vote, and 18 countries that grant prisoners the vote regardless of the offense. The European Court of Human Rights has firmly defended voting rights for prisoners, calling voting bans a violation of human rights.  Our Canadian neighbors grant the right to vote to people in prison. South Africa has granted voting rights to prisoners since 1999, based on a firm belief that voting rights of every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood.

          America stands in contrast to most democratic nations in denying voting rights to millions of citizens.  Only Maine and Vermont grant prisoners voting rights.  The 2 million-plus residents of federal and state prisons are denied their democratic rights. The Democracy Restoration Act, a federal bill which would provide the franchise to all upon release from prison, has been rejected in Congress a number of times since 2008.   

   Efforts have been made in several states to lift bans against criminal offenders’ voting rights.  Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to more than 172,000 people individually.  In California, more than 50,000 people serving felony sentences had their voting rights restored via Assembly Bill 2466. This did not extend the franchise to those incarcerated in state and federal prisons in California but did apply to the right of incarcerated citizens in the state’s jails. Florida voters supported a referendum to restore voting rights to convicted felons, but the legislature blocked it until former offenders repay all court-ordered fines and payments.

   Despite these initiatives the fact remains that the United States, home of nearly 25% of the world’s prison population, denies to them a right that is foundational to democracy.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?   Denying offenders’ voting rights is as old as the American prison.  Kentucky was the first to disenfranchise people convicted of a crime in a 1792 Constitutional provision.  Other states soon followed.  The Fifteenth Amendment that endowed the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” briefly halted the practice during the Reconstruction Era.  Mississippi (in 1898) and Alabama (in 1901) adopted laws and policies against the federal mandate in denying convicted felons the right to vote (the majority of whom were persons of color).  Most other states adopted similar laws that have continued through the Jim Crow era and have multiplied the numbers of disenfranchised citizens through the era of mass incarceration.  

   Findings from The Sentencing Project research (Christopher Uggens, et al., “Locked Out 2020”) feature the following:  

• As of 2020, an estimated 5.17 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction.

• One out of 44 adults – 2.27 percent of the total U.S. voting eligible population– is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.

• In three states – Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee more than 8 percent of the adult population, one of every thirteen people, is disenfranchised.

• Nearly 900,000 Floridians who have completed their sentences remain disenfranchised, despite a 2018 ballot referendum that promised to restore their voting rights.

 • One in 16 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate 3.7 times greater than that of non-African Americans. Over 6.2 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.7 percent of the non-African American population.

• About 4 million former offenders who live in their communities are banned from voting. Of this total, 1.3 million are African Americans.

• More than 560,000 Latinx Americans or over 2 percent of the voting eligible population are disenfranchised.

• Approximately 1.2 million women are disenfranchised, comprising over one-fifth of the total disenfranchised population.

It is clear that disparities in the criminal justice system are linked to disparities in political representation.

 Arguments For and Against Voting Bans  

  Roger Clegg, former deputy attorney general under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush stated in an Op-Ed column in the New York Times “if you won’t follow the law yourself, then you can’t make the law for everyone else, which is what you do—directly or indirectly—when you vote.”

          Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project argues that denying offenders voting rights assumes that people who have been convicted for example of stealing a car, cannot be trusted to participate in deciding which candidate has a more reasonable position on military defense policies, publicly-funded abortions, or health insurance policy.

   Ronald Simpson-Bey, the Director of Outreach and Alumni Engagement for Just Leadership USA has stated that “Allowing incarcerated people the right to vote will strengthen their social and community ties. It encourages them to become assets to their communities instead of liabilities because it encourages legally responsible involvement and behavior in a civil society.”

    Christopher Uggens, et al. (“Citizenship, Democracy, and the Civic Reintegration of Criminal Offenders,” 2006) concluded that reintegrating former offenders as responsible citizens including the right to vote might strengthen democracy while preserving, and perhaps enhancing, public safety.

TAGS Citizenship and the Ballot Box Peoples’ Policy Project Democracy Restoration Act Locked Out 2020

Religion & Racism

In an ideal world the terms “religion” and “racism” would not go together.  The presence of one would be the absence of the other.   Persons who self-identify as Christian, Jewish, or other religions are ideally considered more accepting, tolerant, and inclusive toward others regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, culture, or religious beliefs.  If that is our belief, then we fall short of acting on it. 

          Recent research by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that most American Christians believe that police shootings of black persons are not indicative of police brutality or racism and are isolated incidents.  The majority of White mainline Protestants (53%), White Catholics (56%), and White evangelicals (72%) believe that when the police kill a Black man, it is not representative of a pattern in the way law enforcement treats Black people.  Many White Christians in fact believe that discrimination against White people has become “just as big of a problem” as discrimination against Black people.

          Since the police shootings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake and many other Black persons this summer, many of us White Americans have been reading from the wide selection of books addressing racism, white privilege, and white supremacy in America.  The books do not make for comfortable reading. 

          Topics I still remember from my college studies include “cognitive dissonance” and “defense mechanisms.”  My Psychology professor described these as universal human tendencies and not indicative of mental impairment or emotional disturbance—at least when not used to excess.  We all have difficulty accepting facts that go against long-held beliefs.  Denial, justification, and rationalization are common “defense mechanisms” used by all persons facing evidence contrary to our beliefs.

          “The inability of White Christians to see assaults against Black life for what they are has been more than 400 years in the making.  For White Christians to reckon with anti-Blackness as systemic evil agitates and disrupts White Christian complicity.”  –Melanie C. Jones, Union Presbyterian Seminary

          “(W)hiteness willfully ignores and denies evidence of realities that do not accord with narratives constructed by whiteness.  Therefore, individual persons and communities—churches, political parties—create and assert alternative whiteness-affirming narratives to explain away the unwelcome intruding reality.”  —Wil Gafney, Episcopal priest and professor, Brite Divinity School.

          “Racism…is eradicated by Christians only when we reject these myths and come to grips with the beauty of Africanness and dare to live out a new Christianity that is not beholden to European views.  We fight these myths by admitting they exist.  We fight them by facing the biblical mandate about what the Lord requires: to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God (Micah 6:8). …. America is in need of antiracism activists, preachers, and thinkers who are not people of color.  America desires voices with a moral center that dare speak truth to power and walk humbly with our God.” —The Rev. Otis Moss III

Tags

Public Religion Research Institute

Christian Century: White Christians’ Views

Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds

Religion and Truth

Many Americans are uneasy with the ways religion has been infused into politics.  Religious beliefs that conflict with laws, court rulings, and personal freedoms have been divisive in our nation.  Religious freedom was nevertheless central in our nation’s founding. Politicians’ religious beliefs are qualifying factors for public office and government service.  Religious affiliation and beliefs are considered indicators of one’s honesty and integrity. 

Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers agreed on the principle of religious freedom. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from establishing a religion and guarantees the freedom of religion. Sometimes the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause come into conflict. The federal courts help to resolve such conflicts, with the Supreme Court being the ultimate arbiter.

The separation of church and state has come under scrutiny after the Supreme Court sided with religious conservatives in a series of rulings. One of the rulings allows states to fund religious schools indirectly, while another protects religious schools from federal employment discrimination lawsuits.

Americans have been debating where to draw the line between religion and government throughout our history.  The increase in religiously unaffiliated Americans seems to draw more attention to the issue.  Church and state nevertheless remain intertwined in many ways, with majority public support. 

          The Pew Research Center has identified eight facts about the connections between religion and government in the United States:

1) The U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention God, but every state constitution does.  God does appear in the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance and on U.S. currency.

2)  Most members of Congress are self-identified Christians.

3)  Almost all U.S. presidents, including Donald Trump, have been Christian.  Two of our most famous presidents, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, had no formal religious affiliation. Most U.S. presidents have been sworn in with a Bible, concluding their oath of office with “so help me God.”

4)  Half of Americans feel it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs.

5)  Americans are divided on whether our laws should reflect Bible teachings, but half of U.S. adults say the Bible should influence U.S. laws.

6)  Nearly two-thirds of Americans (63%) say churches should stay out of politics; and 75% believe that churches should not come out in favor of one candidate over another during elections.

7)  Only about a third of Americans (32%) say government policies should support religious values.

8)  The Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that it is unconstitutional for a teacher to lead a class in prayer at a public school, though only 8% of public school students ages 13 to 17 say they have ever experienced this.

The saying that “politics and religion don’t mix” is supported by this national survey.  But this is not an overall negative view of the church and religion.  U.S. adults have a favorable view about the role religious institutions play in American life more broadly, beyond politics.  More than half of the public believes that churches and religious organizations do more good than harm in American society.  Likewise, there are far more U.S. adults who say that religious organizations strengthen morality in society and mostly bring people together

What About “Religion and Truth”?

          Is there evidence to support the belief of most Americans that religious organizations strengthen morality in society?  Does this mean that persons with religious beliefs and church affiliation are more honest and truthful? 

          Two common public practices support a belief in “religion and truth.”  Most candidates for public office are sworn in with their right hand on a Bible and swear allegiance to the constitution and the state.  While no religious test is allowed, most oaths conclude with the statement “so help me God.” 

The second practice that aligns religion and truth occurs in courtrooms throughout America every day courts are in session.  All witnesses and persons testifying in a court of law must first take an oath by swearing (on a Bible or raising their right hand) to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

There are cultural and historical traditions that explain the origins of swearing an oath of allegiance, honesty, and truth.  What seems most clear is the central emphasis of truth and honesty in Judaism and Christianity.  The Hebrew and Christian Bible (the Old and New Testaments) feature repeated references to truth, honesty, and integrity before God and our neighbor. 

          The well-known “Ten Commandments” feature two that especially pertain to promises of honesty and integrity for those in public office as well as for all Americans all the time.  Those commandments are the prohibitions against stealing, and against bearing false witness (Deuteronomy 5: 19-20).

          Failure to “tell the truth, the whole truth, so help me God” is a sin against God and a violation of judicial procedures punishable under the law for perjury.

          When asked which commandment was the greatest one, Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).

          The Bible contains very few references or guidelines as to the proper balance between religion and government.  But there is no doubt that “religion and truth” are invariably connected and recognized as essential for governmental and judicial procedures.

          “The truth”?  Yes, it’s something we ought to do.  But it’s also what is best for me, my neighbors, and the nation.

          Jesus said to those who believed in him:  “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).

Truth and freedom?  Now those are religious and national values worth striving for and working toward!

Yes, “Black Lives Matter,” but ….

…All lives matter!    So, why this “BLM” movement?

Most White Americans are not aware of the extent and nature of racial inequality and injustice in towns and cities across our country. 

          We’re not aware of or don’t acknowledge our “White privilege.”  We’re not “personally racist”—but we don’t recognize the historic and ongoing structural and systemic racism in America.  We don’t personally experience racism because of our white privilege.  We don’t hear about stories of racist acts because most White Americans don’t have friends who are “persons of color.”

          The nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd have revealed the “other side” of American injustice.  More of us now see our own lives as examples of “White privilege.”  We are hearing and taking more seriously the stories and vivid images of racial injustice against Blacks and other persons of color.  More of us understand the significance of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

          We’ve still got a long way to go, as evidenced by the ever-present “…but…” word in trying to understand or justify another police killing of an unarmed Black man.

Black Lives Matter Plaza, Sunday morning June 14th

    Black lives matter, “but” what?  Throughout U.S. history we have not acted as if Black lives matter as much as White lives.  Blacks have not been treated equally: not in housing, home mortgage loans, equal quality schools and education, equal employment opportunities, and more.  Blacks who did military service were not offered the GI Bill for low-interest home loans and financial support for college like White veterans who served.  Black lives do not matter equally in America. 

          We add the word “but” to explain why another unarmed Black man was shot by police.  “Okay, the suspect was not armed, but….”  But what?  Explanations vary.  “The officer feared for his life; the suspect was not cooperative; the suspect was running away; the suspect resembled a man wanted in a drug deal, a theft, a bank robbery, or….” 

          George Floyd was suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill.  No weapon, no lethal threat, but…. 

          The fact is that officers sworn to protect and serve all citizens equally in enforcing laws frequently act as if Black lives matter less than other citizens. 

          In an interview last week, our president disputed the “Black Lives Matter” movement saying that white suspects are fatally shot by police too—in fact, more Whites than Blacks are killed by police.  Was he right?  Yes, technically he was correct.  But like most facts and numbers, it’s a little more complicated than that.  Any comparisons must report the rates, not just the numbers. 

          Blacks comprise only 13% of the American population while Whites make up 73%.   Compared with their relatively small proportion of the 331 million people in the U.S., the rate of Blacks killed by police is more than twice the rate of White Americans killed by police.

People shot to death by U.S. police, 2017-2020

Black Americans:   31 per million of U.S. population

White Americans:  13 per million of U.S. population

      Research on the number and rate of police killings is complicated by the fact that there is no single database that records the number by the race of the person killed.  Available sources include:

Washington Post Police Shootings Database

National Violent Death Reporting System

          The president’s comment that more Whites than Blacks are killed each year by police is shared by many Americans.  After correcting for the rate of persons killed according to their proportion of the population, I did a review of recent studies of police killings.  The findings reveal more differences in those killed by police, and offer more support for the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

A Study of Homicides by Police. Researchers analyzed 1,552 police killings in 16 states over an 8-year period between 2005-2012 and found the rate of Black Americans killed was .48 compared to a rate of .17 for White Americans killed.  An estimated average of 731 people were killed by law enforcement officials each year in the United States during the study period.

Risk of being killed by police in the U.S. African American men and women face a higher lifetime risk of being killed by police than do their white peers. Black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police over the life course than are white men.  For young men of color, police use of force is among the leading causes of death.  Researchers concluded that their findings support policies to treat police violence as a public health issue; and the findings have profound consequences for democracy, racial inequality, and injustice.

Police brutality and racial bias. Out of the approximately 1,000 persons killed each year by law-enforcement officers in the U. S., Black people who are fatally shot by police are two times more likely than white people to be unarmed.  Analyses found differences between White and Black officers in use of deadly force.  White officers dispatched to Black neighborhoods fired their guns five times as often as Black officers dispatched for similar calls to the same neighborhoods.

A Typology of U.S. citizens shot and killed by police.  Analyses of police killings of citizens noted significant differences in the race, ethnicity, and level of threat posed.  Black Americans were disproportionately more likely to be killed by law enforcement and were disproportionately less likely to present an objective threat of deadly force than White Americans who were killed by police.

   Yes, “All Lives Matter”—but the “Black Lives Matter” movement addresses the documented fact that Black lives do not seem to matter equally in police encounters.  

A Theology of “Black Lives Matter”

   If the United States truly acted as if “all lives matter” we would not have higher rates of Black Americans killed by police.  If Americans insisted on police and all justice officials treating all citizens equally we would not see these disproportionate rates of citizens killed by police.  Despite the claims of many Americans, this is not “one nation under God.”

          “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them” (Genesis 1:27).  Black people, like all people, are made in “the image of God” and should be treated that way.

          “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).

          “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

          “You shall love the alien (foreigner, stranger) as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34).

          “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  The Apostle Paul writing to one of the earliest Christian churches emphasized equality of all persons.  The three most divisive barriers between humans—race, class, and gender—were meant to be overcome by those following the life and teachings of Jesus.

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Police Actions and People of Color

White Privilege and Justice

MLK, Jr.: A Struggle for Racial Equality & Justice

“Our Difficulty Talking About Racism”

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer was another in the long string of deaths of unarmed Black men and women by law enforcement in America.  The public reaction to this death has been phenomenal, with national and international protests involving thousands of persons—black and white, young and old, including many who have never engaged in protests against racial injustice.  The video of Officer Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while looking calmly at the cellphone and three officers standing by observing his actions made this excessive use of police force stand out from others.  The incident was shocking. 

          Reactions by local, state, and national leaders and lawmakers were immediate.  The officers were fired and criminal charges have been filed.  Lawmakers in Minnesota and Washington, D.C. have responded with legislation to curb excessive use of force by police officers.  There is not general consensus among the public and lawmakers about the most appropriate and effective response to police use of force, however.  Nor is there general agreement on whether the officers’ actions constitute “racism.”  Many white Americans do not acknowledge the significance of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.  

Americans of the “Baby Boom” generation born after World War II witnessed similar protests against racial segregation in the 1960s.  We followed the news of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he led peaceful protests to raise awareness of racial injustice.  Most Christians and church members did no more than listen politely and silently agree that Blacks were not treated fairly.  We certainly did not condone active protest movements.  The purpose of Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was in response to a public statement of eight Alabama clergymen representing mainline churches.  They appealed to Dr. King for “law and order and common sense” in pushing for change.  The church leaders preferred a civil, polite approach focused more on education and dialogue than on peaceful protests like marches that blocked roads and bridges and required police presence for crowd control. 

          If that appeal to “peaceful protest” and civil, polite dialogue sounds familiar, it is essentially the same position most White Americans and Christian leaders have taken in the fifty-seven years since Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was written.  

          The global protests following George Floyd’s tragic death were like a “wake-up call” to persistent, widespread racial injustice and police killings of unarmed Blacks.  Reasons for the protests are many and varied.  The COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” time has engendered thoughts and reflections on what we truly value.  Thousands of deaths and hospitalizations due to an unseen virus have made us rethink the true threats to our health and safety. Disruptions in education and the workplace; restaurants and bars closed; empty theaters and sports stadiums—this is not supposed to happen in America!  Complaints about inconveniences and “personal freedom” due to the pandemic were quickly drowned out by the unjustified death of another unarmed Black man at the hands (or knee) of another police officer.  

          I’ve addressed the issue of race and injustice in previous weblog posts, including Police Actions and People of Color, White Privilege and Justice, MLK, Jr.: A Struggle for Racial Equality & Justice

          The intensity and number of persons protesting George Floyd’s death drove me to read more, learn more, about why we White Americans have done so little to address the problems of racial inequality and injustice.  In short, it’s not a comfortable topic!  We seem to not know how to address racism.  We’re living in two worlds, black and white.  We go to school together, work together, celebrate music, entertainment, and sports together—but we’re not really “together.”  We self-segregate.  Dr. King was correct that the most segregated hour of the week is on Sunday mornings.

                Sociologist Robin DiAngelo claims “White Fragility” is what prevents White Americans from confronting racism.  She questions the claims of White Americans who deny racism, that they “were taught to treat everyone the same,” and that they are “color-blind.”  She coined the term “white fragility” to describe the defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged. We refuse to acknowledge “white privilege” and white supremacy.  Our discomfort and reluctance to acknowledge and talk about racism is so apparent that many Black people don’t risk pointing out discrimination when they experience it and see it.  White fragility is a barrier to change and holds racism in place.

          This is not a comfortable read.  DiAngelo challenges the idea of being “color blind” and that “race doesn’t matter.”  Few White Americans will admit to being “racist.”  We have the idea that racism is conscious bias and prejudice held by narrow-minded, mean people.  Seeing our Black-White divide as a world of “evil racists” versus “compassionate non-racists” is what DiAngelo calls a “good/bad binary.”  White Americans focus on our good moral beliefs toward all people and overlook the systemic and structural racism that has disadvantaged Black Americans throughout American history.

          Ordained minister and professor of Sociology Michael Eric Dyson preaches against a culture of whiteness in Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. Dyson’s central premise is that if we want true racial equality in America, whites must take an active part in doing away with the false idea of white supremacy.  While few Americans relish being “preached at,” the structure of the book may appeal to persons of faith who will recognize the chapters organized like an order of worship.  Readers should be prepared to hear the lament of a Black preacher who speaks from personal experience about the American culture of “whiteness” that shamelessly allows cruel, uncaring practices against our Black neighbors.

          Many Americans hailed the election of Barak Obama as the end of racism in this country.  “Postracial” was a term seen on social media and heard on the airwaves.   The election of President Obama surely was proof that Americans valued equality under the law and under God.  Many were skeptical of that optimistic claim however, and the last three years have proven the skeptics correct.  Racial inequality and injustice remain unchanged and Americans stand in need of reckoning with these persistent issues.  The editor and contributors of Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds offer concerned Christians the chance to clarify terms and issues around racism and how to respond. 

          The book challenges the myth of white supremacy.  In the Foreword to the book, the Rev. Otis Moss III writes that racism will be “eradicated by Christians only when we reject these myths and come to grips with the beauty of Africanness and dare to live out a new Christianity that is not beholden to European views.  We fight these myths by admitting they exist.  We fight them by facing the biblical mandate about what the Lord requires: to act justly and to love mercy and to walk with humility before God.”

          American institutions including schools, banks, government offices, housing practices, laws, and justice system officials have in fact acted and made decisions as if black lives do not matter as much as white lives.  Yes, the thousands of persons protesting the tragic deaths of George Floyd and other unarmed Black persons clearly understand the meaning of “Black Lives Matter.”

Tags

Police Actions and People of Color White Privilege and Justice

MLK, Jr.: A Struggle for Racial Equality & Justice

“White Fragility” Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America

Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds

Prisons During a Pandemic

One of the things I miss most during this pandemic is going to prison. Yes, you read that correctly. To be clear: as a Prison Fellowship Volunteer I miss the two hours each week of meeting with 25 residents in a state prison. The Prison Fellowship Reentry meetings are also missed by the inmates, the prison chaplain, and by the prison warden who requested the program as a way to reduce the rate of return to prison.

RL-MCFSCL

The coronavirus pandemic and shutdown made it essential to restrict prison entry to only prison officials. The challenge of protecting a prison population of 1,000 residents from the deadly virus is difficult. Three shifts of officers and staff enter the prison daily to work in conditions that don’t allow for “social distance” in the close living and working quarters.

Corrections officers and prison staff members are placing themselves at risk by working in close quarters much like emergency workers and hospital staff. The difference is that little attention is paid to them. They’re just working with convicted felons who deserve the prison sentences they got! Yes, correct enough. But like all criminal justice officials, those working in jails and prisons deserve safe working conditions.

There’s another reason detention centers, jails, and prisons must be maintained as safe working environments. The U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Estelle v. Gamble [429 U. S. 97 (1976)] that the government must provide medical care to those whom it punishes in incarceration. The ruling had a special impact on me because I was studying Criminal Justice in a graduate school located adjacent to the Texas Prison System where the case originated. The Supreme Court gave us a vivid illustration of how failure to provide medical care to those in government custody is a violation of the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.

Thousands of jail and prison inmates have been released by states and counties, following guidance of public health and corrections officials to attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus through the corrections system. Priority for those released include older nonviolent inmates, those with a compromised immune system, and jail inmates held on an unpaid money bond. The coronavirus has been confirmed in correctional officers and inmates in some prisons and jails. President Trump indicated in a news conference in March that he would consider an executive order to release elderly nonviolent offenders from federal prisons.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected all of us in multiple ways, ranging from complaints about personal inconvenience to grief over the untimely death of family and friends. Faith-based and religious activists have raised awareness of the effects of the pandemic. The Jewish Never Again Action group projected an image of Anne Frank on a wall near Boston’s John F. Kennedy Federal Building. The caption below her face read “Anne Frank died of an infectious disease in a crowded detention center.” ( See “Deadly as Dachau” in Christian Century, April 22, 2020.)

Faith-based advocates representing Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious groups have pushed for release of inmates who pose minimal public safety risk from county jails, state and federal prisons, and ICE detention facilities. Smaller incarcerated populations will enhance the safety of both inmates and officers, allowing for some social distancing and some relief for the few medical personnel in the facilities.

Prison Fellowship volunteers regularly see the importance of religious programming and the pivotal role of Prison Chaplains in maintaining a positive prison environment. Inmates who voluntarily participate in Prison Fellowship and other religious programming take responsibility for their actions that landed them in prison. They are focused on positive change to prepare for their release back into society. Faith-based prison volunteers are drawn to assist Prison Chaplains in helping inmates turn their lives around.

Author and retired minister Donald McKim recently shared his thoughts during this pandemic (“Pondering in the Pandemic“). Three theological emphases of the Reformed tradition are: God is sovereign; God can bring good out of bad; and we can use the means God gives us.

We have all witnessed good, helpful, self-less actions demonstrated by people during this pandemic. Good things do happen during bad times. In his letter to early Christian believers in Rome the Apostle Paul wrote: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

We believe that God is sovereign in history and in our lives, even through pandemics. God’s purposes will be fulfilled, through good times and bad. None of us like being required to “shelter at home” anymore than prison inmates like being incarcerated. But through it all we believe God’s love is present and is expressed through love and caring people around us.

Paul prayed to God for relief from his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). We too pray for relief from this pandemic. It is my belief and hope that we will find some relief just as Paul wrote of God’s promise to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

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Deadly as Dachau

Pondering in the Pandemic

Crime, Coronavirus, and a Cure

Vinnie’s Mom sent him to the pharmacy to pick up her medication. Like a good son he walked the eight blocks to help out his Mom with this important errand. The pharmacist gave Vinnie the prescription after charging his Mom’s account and put it in a bag for him to carry home. On his way out of the store Vinnie noticed a display with the latest earplugs that would work great with his smart phone. The price however was $19.95—more money than he could afford. Vinnie noticed no clerk was at the check-out counter. She was stocking shelves two rows back, out of sight. No one, neither customers nor store employees were between him and the door. The opportunity was too good. He carefully, deftly, took an earplug package, dropped it in his bag and walked out. He heaved a sigh of relief when no security alarm went off as he exited the store.

Did Vinnie commit a crime? Yes, he did! But Vinnie is a good kid. …not a juvenile delinquent. He’s never done a crime before, never hurt anyone, helps out his Mom. But he committed a crime, even while helping his Mom with an important errand. It didn’t seem like such a bad thing. He heard stories from friends at school about how they “got stuff for free!” “Lotsa kids did it, and hardly anyone ever got caught.”

Shoplifting1

Vinnie’s right: only 2 percent are ever caught. But it’s a serious crime. According to the National Retail Security Survey, employee theft and shoplifting cost $49 billion a year.   Criminologists describe shoplifting and employee theft as a “rational” or “choice” type of crime that occurs through routine activities“.

In contrast to other crimes, shoplifting is not done out of anger or passion; no one is assaulted or threatened, and it’s not specific to social class, age, gender, or other social characteristics. It’s more easily rationalized (and therefore more common) than other crimes. “I’m not hurting anyone.” “Stores jack up their prices too high anyway.” Ironically that last statement is true in part because the cost of retail theft by a few drives up the price for all of us!

Understanding the causes directs us to the “cure.” Three factors explain rational choice crime like shoplifting: (1) the availability of suitable targets of crime; (2) the absence of guardians; and (3) the presence of motivated offenders.

The “suitable target of crime” for Vinnie was the display of earplugs conveniently located near the exit of the store. The absence of a store clerk (a “guardian”) at the counter made the crime possible. But how often had Vinnie or every one of us been in a similar situation when we could have walked out of a store without paying? The opportunities for crime are endless! Rational choice crime therefore also requires a third factor: a “motivated offender” to pull it off.  “Motivated offenders” are willing to take risks of getting caught and they justify or rationalize their actions: “no one’s getting hurt, it’s not a real crime, it’s not a big deal!”

ambulance

Coronavirus and Crime

Vinnie’s Uncle Bill is an ambulance driver. He admired his uncle and would like to have a job like him some day. Helping transport injured and sick people to a hospital is a great thing to do. But Uncle Bill tested positive for the Coronavirus while doing his “everyday activity” of transporting injured and ill people to the hospital. The coronavirus does what viruses do: they infect people, especially when they are not protected, when there’s no “guardian.”

The Cure

To reduce “everyday” or “rational choice” crimes requires at least one of three preventative measures: reduce the number of “suitable targets”; increase protective measures or “guardians”; and reduce the number of “motivated offenders.”

The first two measures are fairly straightforward. Stores, banks, and similar businesses all reduce “suitable targets” and increase “guardians” (visible and invisible). To reduce the spread of coronavirus, government and health officials are insisting upon personal behaviors and habits that will reduce the spread of the virus. We know the CDC guidelines: wash our hands, avoid close contact, and more.

Coronavirus1

Reducing the number of “motivated offenders” is a greater challenge. To discourage Vinnie and others from stealing requires education, socialization, character development and more. You get it. Instilling ethical and moral principles of “right” and “wrong” even in the absence of that “guardian” is a lengthy process and one that depends on all of us as role models. Yes, we’re all in this together!

Stretching an already imperfect analogy a bit farther, changing the “motivation” of the coronavirus and its ill effects on our bodies requires well-tested vaccines or anti-bodies that can fight off the virus. Changing “motivated offenders” and developing effective medications against a virus both take time, research, and dedicated efforts of thousands of people.

It’s complicated and requires knowledge and expertise; and yet it’s also simple and begins with each of us. We know the importance of family and parental support, of childhood education and nurture. But our support for parental leaves, childcare and public health ranks well below similar democratic, industrialized nations. America’s system of taxpayer support for public schools results in what one writer called “savage inequalities” among rich and poor school districts.2  Schools with the greatest needs get the least funding.

Most Americans have never faced a pandemic like this one. But this is not our first one. The 1918 influenza pandemic claimed the lives of 50 million worldwide and 675,000 in the U.S.

Hospital

Historians remind us of a quotation by George Santayana more than 100 years ago: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The coronavirus pandemic has taken many lives, altered everyday activities and instilled fear.   It is like crime, except that we cannot place the blame on those “motivated offenders”!

We’re learning from this experience. The devastation and widespread effects on the entire nation are reminding us that history does repeat itself. The greatest threats to our safety and well-being are not always crime, terrorism, and international conflict.  We would do well to remember similar threats in our history and be prepared to face them.

The words of Moses are instructive: “See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe…. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who… will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6).

The words of Job: “With God are wisdom and strength; he has counsel and understanding” (Job 12:13).

Words attributed to King Solomon (6th century BCE): “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6).

“Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body” (Proverbs 3:7).

“Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one bungler destroys much good” (Ecclesiastes 9:18).

____________

1See e.g., Marcus Felson, Crime and Everyday Life. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1994.)

2Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991).

Tags

National Retail Security Survey

Juvenile Justice: The Essentials

“Crime and Everyday Life”

Centers for Disease Control

1918 influenza pandemic

Criminology and the Theater

 

America’s “solution” to crime is punishment because we believe that criminal behavior is a personal choice for which the individual offender must be held accountable. Just make the consequences of crime “painful” by punishing ’em and crime will stop. So we believe. But “getting tough on crime” has not worked.

Criminologists and other social scientists have presented research evidence over the past 100 years that there are identifiable causes for all human behavior. We all have choices and make personal decisions. But those choices are influenced by factors beyond our control. Many state laws and policies for reducing juvenile delinquency were based on findings that interventions in families and home environment made a difference.

The voices and actions of criminologists, social workers, and juvenile rehabilitation proponents were drowned out by those who insisted that crime was simply a personal choice. Most of us don’t want to accept that perhaps some of our crime and social problems can be traced to our nation’s lack of support for families, schools, and social institutions.   Can the theater open our minds to criminologists’ claims? 

790441h

The award-winning play “West Side Story” depicted a satirical view of juvenile delinquency that reflects criminologists’ findings. The 1957 Broadway play was based on a book by Arthur Laments, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The 1961 musical film was directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. The story revolves around two warring New York City gangs: the “Jets,” a white gang led by Riff; and the Puerto Rican “Sharks,” led by Bernardo.

Tony, a former leader of the Jets and Riff’s best friend, sees Maria, Bernardo’s little sister, at a dance. Their eyes meet across the room and it is love at first sight. Despite opposition from both sides they secretly meet and their love grows deeper. The Jets and the Sharks plan one last rumble, and whoever wins gains control of the streets. Maria sends Tony to stop the fight in hope that he can end the violence. His attempts fail however, and tragedy strikes as the story comes to a climactic and heartbreaking ending.

Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics put to music by Bernstein in the song “Gee, Officer Krupke” portray both the stereotypes and established causes of juvenile crime.

“Gee, Officer Krupke”

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, you gotta understand

It’s just our bringin’ up-ke, that gets us out of hand.

Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers are all drunks.

Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks….

We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get.

We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood….

Dear kindly judge, your Honor, my parents treat me rough….

They didn’t wanna have me, but somehow I was had.

Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad! ….

This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!

It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.

He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!….

This boy don’t need a doctor, just a good honest job.

Society’s played him a terrible trick, and sociologic’ly he’s sick!….

Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease! ….

Good entertainment?   Yes!    Besides portraying some of the stereotypes and “bleeding heart” explanations of delinquency, “West Side Story” portrays the problems we face due to disparities in school funding, lack of equal educational and employment opportunities, and our willingness to turn our backs on countless children and their parents, most of whom are doing their best to make it with limited resources.

Fast-forward to 1998 and 2000 when medical experts published research on the effects of  Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACEs). Children and youth who experience abuse, family conflict, disruption, alcohol and drug abuse tend to make bad choices and personal decisions that bring them to the attention of police and juvenile authorities.

        Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and Delinquency

  • Childhood Abuse: Emotional, Physical, Sexual Abuse
  • Neglect: Emotional or Physical
  • Growing up in a seriously dysfunctional household: Domestic violence, alcohol & drug abuse in the home, mentally ill family members, parental marital discord, crime in the home.

“Discipline your children while there is hope; do not set your heart on their destruction.” –Proverbs 19:18.

“The righteous walk in integrity—happy are the children who follow them.”                     –Proverbs 20:7

“Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” –Proverbs 22:6

Tags      Juvenile Justice: The Essentials         “West Side Story”       “Gee, Officer Krupke”

Whatever Became of “Sin”?

Crime is a major topic of daily news reports. We abhor crime. We fear its effects. But crime and police shows are among the most watched on television. We hate crime but are entertained by it!

Contradictory?   Yes, but no less inconsistent than our willingness to tolerate “white-collar” crimes that do not threaten our personal safety.  Americans are more tolerant of illegal actions of prominent citizens, the wealthy, and those in positions of power.

Have the lines between “what is right” and what is illegal, immoral, and unethical become blurred in American society? Many think so.

What-Sin

The renowned psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger wrote a book years ago that addressed the Biblical and theological perspectives of illegal and unethical behavior. Our reluctance to call wrongful behavior “sins” is as true today as it was in 1973 when his book “Whatever Became of Sin?” was published.

Menninger notes that the word “sin” was once in everyone’s mind but now is rarely heard. Is no one guilty of sin now? Wrong things are being done, but is no one answerable or responsible for these acts? Has no one committed sin anymore?

Sin is referred to repeatedly in the Bible.   Failure to follow God’s laws and commandments constitutes sin.  Jesus said the two greatest commandments are “to love God and our neighbors” (with a very broad definition of “neighbor”).    Failure to do so would be a “sin”.

Sin-defin

According to the Webster Dictionary,

Sin is an offense against God, religion, or good morals; an offense against any law, standard, or code; or, “a sin against good taste.”

Many former sins have become crimes. What were once sins against God and neighbor are now crimes against local, state, or federal laws. Responsibility for dealing with them passed from the church to the state. One might say the policeman replaced the priest.

Under the justice process we no longer have “sinners” but “criminal suspects.” All are legally innocent until proven guilty “beyond reasonable doubt.” A fair justice process considers all legal and relevant factors in determining guilt. Despite good intentions, justice varies by economic status: “How much justice (legal counsel) can you afford?”

The American system of justice is arguably the best in the world. Court officials focus on “fairness for all” but they are not perfect. It is important to recognize that the formal judicial process deals solely with “criminal behavior.” A court finding of not “legally guilty” may not mean “factually innocent.”

The justice process only deals with crimes and violations as defined in a legal code. Most deceitful, hurtful, unethical and reprehensible behaviors are not criminal or illegal.   Should they then be overlooked and accepted?   Certainly not.

I am not suggesting a move toward shaming and judging the sinful among us!     Anyone familiar with the Bible recalls Jesus’s reminders that “no one is without sin”—a point that his disciples recorded.

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” –1 John 1:8

What then are we to do?    I concur with Dr. Menninger that responsible citizens in a democratic society have become more sensitive to injustice and cruelty.   The purpose of his book was to sensitize and arouse readers to recognize and oppose “sin”.   There is “sin” among us although it is called by various names.   I long for personal responsibility in all human actions, good and bad.   Evil-doing tends to evoke guilt feelings and unease. Honesty, self-awareness, and the desire to “do the right thing” would go a long way toward curbing what we used to call “sin”.