Lutherans commit to criminal reform

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In an overwhelming vote followed by cheers and a standing ovation, the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America called for sweeping reform of the nation's criminal justice system and committed the church to ministry with and advocacy for prisoners and their families, victims of crime and ex-convicts.

"The ELCA is prompted to speak and to act because so many cries of suffering and despair emerge from the criminal justice system -- from victims, the incarcerated, their families, communities, those wrongly convicted, they who work in the system -- and have not been heard," the statement said. It was adopted 882-25 by the body whose weeklong meeting at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center ends today.

"A fundamental transformation of mind-set about criminal justice is required that challenges the logic equating more punitive measures with more just ones. Individuals must be held accountable, but every person in the criminal justice system deserves to be seen and treated as a member of human communities, created in the image of God and worthy of appropriate and compassionate response."

The 38-page statement "The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries," calls for an end to privately run prisons, saying they undercut rehabilitation and have an economic motive to keep people locked up. The report focuses on keeping nonviolent offenders out of jail, trying to rehabilitate those inside and helping ex-convicts to live an honest, productive life. It says that lifelong sanctions, such as depriving felons of the right to vote or to obtain federal student loans, are counterproductive.

When possible, the report said, courts should use "restorative justice," where perpetrator, victims and members of the community work out a plan together to repair harm done by the perpetrator. It recommends alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crimes, particularly drug and parole violations. It endorses a variety of sentencing reforms, including specialized courts that enable treatment for addicts and mentally ill people. The document also criticizes draconian sentencing guidelines, such as mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws, and says that the nation's drug policies must be reformed.

The report was in the works for five years, with grass-roots hearings, and was familiar to the nearly 1,000 voting members. The only significant debate involved wording in a section on racial disparities in drug arrests. A proposed amendment would have changed the words "black" to "African-American" with amendments to the amendment then proposing "people of color" or "persons of African descent."

"I'm not African American, I'm black. I was born in the United States," said Maya Gaines from Maryland.

In the end, "black" remained in the sentence in question, though African American is used elsewhere in the statement.

After the vote, Bishop Kurt Kusserow said that the ELCA Synod of Southwestern Pennsylvania works through Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania to provide extensive ministry at the Allegheny County Jail and mentoring after inmates are released. The centerpiece is Pods of Hope, an interfaith program that provides inmates with instruction on life skills, such as parenting and budgeting, along with faith development in a voluntary community that sets higher standards for behavior than the rest of the jail.

"It's been so successful in Allegheny County that it's spreading to other counties," he said.

The Rev. Donald Green, an ELCA pastor who oversees the prison ministry as executive director of Christian Associates, said the document identifies serious problems that the jail chaplains see every day.

The inmates are "by an overwhelming majority non-white and charged with substance abuse-related offenses and should be in some other form of treatment than incarceration," he said. "This statement lifts up the need for major reforms. In Pennsylvania, finances are already beginning to force us to do some of it, because we can't afford to keep locking people up."


Ann Rodgers: or 412-263-1416.


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