According to a Prison Policy Initiative study by Peter Wagner and Wendy Sawyer dated March 14, 2018, entitled “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018,” a staggering 2.3 million people are incarcerated in America’s prisons. This includes “state prisons, federal prisons, juvenile correctional facilities, local jails, Indian Country jails, military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the the U.S. territories.”
It’s true that this staggering number includes many prisoners who have committed heinous crimes and probably need to be locked up. But that is not the case for everyone and in many cases our system failures have become discriminatory, unfair, and unjust — particularly for those who cannot afford legal representation, bail, or who are members of a minority (particularly blacks, females, and Hispanics).
According to the study, most people who are locked up in the U.S. on any particular day have not been convicted of anything. About 70% of people in local jails are awaiting trial and legally are presumed to be innocent. Some people can afford bail, but others are too poor to make bail and remain locked up and unable to work or be with their families until trial. Only a minority percentage of people in prison on any given day have actually been convicted of anything, according to the study.
It appears that America’s “over-criminalization” of people disproportionately affects those people who are victims of race, economic, and gender discrimination. According to a May 10, 2016 article entitled, “Detaining the Poor: How Bail Money Perpetuates an Endless Cycle of Poverty and Jail Time,” by Bernadette Rabuy and Daniel Kopf, most people who are unable to meet bail will remain in jail until they can get a trial even though they are legally assumed innocent. The majority of these people, continues the article, fall within the poorest one-third of our society.
What this means to Americans in practical terms is that when black men, black women, and Hispanic women are arrested in America, they are much more likely to be unable to make bail (compared to white males). It also means, practically speaking, that black men, black women, and Hispanic women are much more likely to spend time in jail than white men because they cannot afford bail, even though they have not yet been convicted of any crime and might never be. This in turn can cause job loss, nonpayment of bills, separation from family, and prevent their family from being able to pay its bills. Some families will go into debt or lose their homes to help their incarcerated family member raise bail money. In other words, America’s bail system is “perpetuating an endless cycle of poverty from which they and their dependents cannot recover.”
I don’t have all the answers and I am not an expert in America’s criminal justice system. But I have a sense that something is unfair about our bail system. Poor people, including the working poor, blacks, Hispanics, juveniles, and women seem most likely to fall victim to system failings — along with their families and children who are affected by their over-criminalization and time in jail awaiting trial.
Jesus had first-hand experience with the failings of a justice system. Even though He was innocent of any crime, He was tortured and crucified in the most horrible way imaginable. It’s my understanding that practically all of Jesus’ original disciples were also tortured and imprisoned at least once and often several times.
Perhaps that is why Jesus has always shown great empathy for those who become overly-criminalized or who are incarcerated. Jesus urges, “Don’t forget about those in jail. Suffer with them as though you were there yourself. Share the sorrow of those being mistreated, for you know what they are going through.” (Hebrews 13:3)
Perhaps it was no coincidence that Jesus was once a prisoner for sins He did not commit. Perhaps it was so we could identify with those in need wherever we might find them — including prisoners in a physical prison of brick-and-mortar, as well as those who are imprisoned in a spiritual cell of their own making.
Photo: Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey in “The Green Mile”