Are Americans the Worst People in the World?
America’s Shame – Are We the Worst People in the World?
In Matthew 25, Jesus of Nazareth called on his followers to visit prisoners. In these simple verses, Jesus expresses his will that Christians be concerned for those imprisoned. Today, in the United States of America, we have more people imprisoned per capita than in any other developed nation. Many statistics reflect the shameful fact that we in the United States have the highest incarceration rate in the world. We are imprisoning people at a rate that is 22% higher than Russia – 46% higher than Kazakhstan – 73% higher than Mexico – 80% higher than England and Wales – 82% higher than Australia – 84% higher than Canada, China, and Vietnam. Put another way, we maintain an incarceration rate 6 times higher than our neighbor to the north, Canada, and almost 4 times higher than our neighbor to the south, Mexico. Given these deeply troubling statistics, we believe that Jesus’ call takes on greater urgency. It calls us to challenge the criminal justice system that creates the world’s highest rate of incarceration. It calls us to visit the prisoners, and to show compassion and mercy as we work to prevent more people from being caught up in what we believe is an inhuman apparatus.
We believe that the world’s highest rate of incarceration is not the result of a nation made up of citizens more evil or prone to wrongful behavior than any other nation. Quite the opposite – we believe that Americans overall are less inclined toward doing wrong than people of many other nations. So what does our world’s highest incarceration rate mean? We believe that the answer is three-fold: First, and worst, we have created profit incentives for arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning more of our fellow citizens. Second, we have criminalized personal behaviors that, to the extent these behaviors are a fit subject for any public response, should be addressed as public health issues, not criminal justice issues. Third, our failures on the first two factors have engendered over-politicized and over-zealous people filling jobs in law enforcement, prosecutorial, and judicial positions. These people have developed a blind spot regarding the harm they are doing to society.
Benjamin Franklin is one of our most revered Founding Fathers. He helped to create many of our founding documents (e.g., Declaration of Independence). Franklin once stated that it is better for 100 guilty men to go free than for 1 innocent man to be wrongfully punished. Our present criminal justice system has turned this upside down. Our police, prosecutors, and judges relentlessly pursue the policy that it is better for 100 innocent people to be imprisoned than for 1 guilty person to go free. This corrupt and corrosive way of thinking permeates 21st century America. It fills our prisons with people torn from their families and communities. Countless lives are destroyed. It is shamelessly fed by 24/7 ‘news’ programs on television, radio, and the internet. These media pander to voyeurs as the celebrity cops perform in ‘perp-walks’ designed to humiliate and shame people – people whom our laws say must be presumed innocent!
The challenge is formidable. Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake for those who profit from arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning their neighbors. There exists in the United States a well-funded and deeply entrenched ‘prison industrial complex’ that grows rich by the imprisonment of our fellow citizens. Those who profit from building prisons, guarding prisoners, providing services to prisons, and using prisoner labor have forged close ties with politicians at every level. There exists a systematic effort to frighten Americans with the specter of high crime rates and lawless violence in a largely successful effort to align public opinion with the profit goals of the prison industrial complex. Police department budgets, promotions, and expansions are all dependent on turning more citizens into criminals. The same holds for prosecutorial departments and the judiciary. They all profit in one way or another by criminalizing more private behavior and incarcerating more of our fellow citizens. We as individual cannot do everything necessary to end this massive injustice – but we can do something.
We ask you to focus efforts to provide assistance and support to the millions of people who are being persecuted by the criminal justice system. We suggest three objectives:
· Education about the corrosive and corrupting role of the profit motive in our criminal justice system.
· Challenging convictions when there is reason to believe that those convicted did not receive fair treatment at the hands of law enforcement officers and the criminal justice system.
· Challenging public policy to address allegations of many criminal offenses within the context of the public health system rather than the criminal justice system.
We challenge every Christian educational and charitable organization to take on the moral outrage created by our criminal justice system that has resulted in the highest in the world incarceration rate. Take steps:
· To identify, publicize, and challenge abuses by law enforcement, and all participants in the criminal justice system, that lead to oppression of American citizens and the highest incarceration rate in the world. We specifically oppose the profit motive in criminal justice.
· To survey research publications and other information and produce resources to inform public policy discussions on topics related to incarceration and official oppression and abuses by law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
· To educate professionals in the fields of family counseling, Christian ministry, family medicine, law enforcement, and criminal prosecution to better equip them to identify and intervene in the lives of people engaged in addictive behavior before it puts them into the criminal justice system.
· To develop and provide focused public information programs to enable and encourage people suffering from addictions to self-identify and seek therapy.
· To develop programs for referrals to competent professional therapists and follow-up care to ensure the highest possible success rate for therapy for individuals identified as addicted.
· To provide personal assistance and support for addicted individuals who have been accused of crimes to ensure that they have professional and capable legal representation as well as therapy for their addictive behavior.
· To visit and support through prayer and compassionate care those prisoners suffering from addictions (and their families) who have been convicted of criminal offenses, and to assist them in appeals and other efforts to rebuild their lives.
We are not calling for the abolition of all police agencies, prosecutors, judges, or prisons. We live in a fallen world, a world thoroughly corrupted by sin. Police, courts, and prisons are necessary to restrain the rampant evil that would otherwise prevail. We do not advocate anarchy. However, we believe that it is self-evident that we are already living in a police state. The balance has been lost between individual freedom and personal liberty on the one side and the necessity of maintaining public order and a peaceful society on the other. The danger to our society posed by the police, the criminal justice system, and the prison industrial complex is arguably greater than the danger posed by real criminals and people of violence. We challenge every Christian in not just the United States but throughout the world: Be a voice calling for an end to the profit motive for arrest, prosecution, conviction, and incarceration. Be a voice calling for decriminalizing private behavior and addictions that result in countless lives destroyed by our criminal justice system. Be a voice demanding that our police, prosecutors, and the prison industrial complex be made accountable for the police state that they are inflicting on the people of the United States.
 More than a decade ago, when New York State was considering repeal of the draconian ‘Rockefeller Laws’, which were widely recognized as resulting in onerous sentences far out of proportion to any crimes committed, Nancy Little, then a New York State Senator from an Upstate New York District, objected. She spoke passionately on the floor of the New York Senate and in media interviews about the necessity of maintaining the status quo. Her sole rational for keeping laws that everyone agreed were unjust was that by repealing them, the prison population would be reduced and prison guards would be laid off. Her district was highly dependent on prison related jobs. Ms. Little shamelessly put the interests of the prison guards’ union, which supported her politically, above the freedom of the thousands of New York citizens entombed in the prisons located in her district. This is but one of thousands of similar examples of how the prison industrial complex has corrupted politics.