One of the more noteworthy political shifts of recent years is the degree to which prison reform has become a cause for conservatives. After decades of bellicose rhetoric on law-and-order issues, many on the political right have turned their attentions toward better conditions of confinement, reducing the number of those confined and improving social reintegration for the formally incarcerated. The result: States that have taken on criminal justice reform have built fewer prisons, cut spending and, most importantly, lowered crime.
Now, the time has come to build on that record of success by tackling jail reform. Of the 650,000 individuals in local jails throughout the country, 450,000 are awaiting trial — that is, innocent until proven guilty. Jailing so many individuals — many simply because they cannot afford bail — offends the most basic principles of conservatism: limited government, fiscal responsibility and, perhaps most importantly, the sense that government policy should reflect our most basic moral values. Indeed, the official Republican platform uses the word “moral” nine times.
The question arises: What model of morality should be used? Many American conservatives, polling, would argue that it should be a Christian one. While “Christian” and “conservative” are not synonyms, a majority of Americans who consider themselves politically conservative also identify as “Christian.”
Further, while conservatives certainly do not hold a monopoly on Christian values, few could dispute that Christians and Christian interest groups do hold significant power and influence within the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Indeed, this relationship often is decried by the political left, who protest that conservatives are too heavily influenced by their Christian base and that they seek to impose sectarian religious values on the country as a whole.
Leaving aside that particular partisan debate, the question that must be raised in the topic immediately at hand is: What would Jesus do about jail reform?
First and most obviously, let’s recall that Jesus himself was arrested, jailed and subjected to appalling pretrial treatment. Moreover, there is no doubt that Christ stood for principles of mercy — the New Testament commands believers to “love thy neighbor” and practice forgiveness.
When Jesus encountered the adulteress who was sentenced to death, he certainly had read scripture’s Deuteronomy 22:24, which prescribed the people to “take [her] to the gate of … town and stone [her] to death.” Yet he instead asked that the person who has not sinned to “cast the first stone.” Many miss the irony in this passage. According to the Christian faith, Jesus was sinless, so only he could condemn her. Conservatives should take heed of this lesson — just because the law says you can, does not mean you should.
Further, Christ was steadfast when he spoke about reconciliation and rejected the Exodus “eye for an eye” model for criminal justice. He instead encouraged his students to “not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well.”
This is not to say that conservatives should advocate against punishing criminal activity, but rather, that rehabilitation should be central to jail reform.
It’s unreasonable to think that Christ, who preached a gospel of love, would want others to face an arbitrary jail system. Christ’s innocent incarceration is more than just an example of an unfortunate miscarriage of justice by an imperfect jail system. It was an example of an arbitrary and capricious system.
Today 70 percent of those held in jail are pretrial and thus innocent until proven guilty, including suspects of petty crimes, like the adulteress, who often are jailed simply because they are too poor to afford bail. Our system is in deep tension with our basic moral values.
Of course, not all Christians would agree with these conclusions. Many Christians believe the individual alone is responsible for his salvation and those who suffer unjustly will see their rewards in heaven, lessening the significance of the secular criminal-justice system. Many also believe that civilians should “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” meaning to submit to the laws of man and our secular society.
But the discussion here is not meant as a theological debate. Rather, it is simply to underscore that, for those who are persuaded, jail reform offers Christian conservatives the opportunity to bring their faith and their politics into greater harmony. Those in jail are fellow citizens who often are not guilty, but more powerfully, they are fellow human beings. How they are treated should be important to all of us: whether Christian or secular, Jew or Gentile.
Jail reform should be on the agenda for conservatives and libertarians around the country. Reform efforts reflect the conservative principles of limited government, public safety and saving taxpayer money. But there also is a higher calling for reform — a Christian one.
Image by Hannah Gleghorn