International Bible Givers

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From the Chairman

IBG Chairman Chuck Hayes

On Legal Systems and Justice

Last year I did a series of blogs on racism and social/biblical justice. Those blogs prompted much dialogue, so I promised to come back to the topic. Well, here we are! IBG gets a lot of prisoner mail, and while some of it comes from serious offenders, most comes from people doing time for drug possession or other non-violent crime. So this month, I’m recommending Re-Thinking Incarceration by Dominique DuBois Gilliard. I don’t agree with everything he writes, but think the work provides valuable perspective.

We tend to use the words legal and justice interchangeably. A corporate lawyer once gave me a great lesson on why they are not the same. I was whining about a patent infringement suit that had settled in our favor but let the offenders off without having to admit theft. The lawyer explained my disappointment was that I was expecting JUSTICE to be done, but that the US has a LEGAL system, not a JUSTICE system.

In a legal system, laws (rules) are established which create boundaries for acceptable behavior and enforcement. These laws MAY be just, or not. Roe v Wade was considered an unjust law by many. Now some consider its roll back unjust. The author cites many examples of laws written post 13th amendment to oppress recently freed African Americans that were “Legal” but not “Just”. As Christians, our standard of what is Just comes from the character of God himself. Micah 6:8 reminds: “No, oh people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” As Christians, we cannot simply accept that legal is just, but rather work for “what is right”.

President Nixon declared the ”War on Drugs” in 1971 and the war has been carried on by every president (both parties) ever since. While enormous sums have been spent on interdiction, enforcement and incarceration, drugs are a bigger scourge than in 1971. Some now run for office under the “Law & Order” banner. On the surface, it’s hard to argue with that. I mean, who doesn’t want law and order? That’s what makes civilization function in a civilized way. There are, however, huge unintended consequences to the War on Drugs and Law and Order policies. When laws are written unequally and enforced selectively, our legal system produces great injustice.

Example: Cocaine is the drug of preference for white suburbanites, while crack is the greatly preferred drug of choice in the African-American community. The Anti-drug Abuse Act of 1986 introduced 5-10 year mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession. You had to be in possession of 500 grams of cocaine powder to earn that sentence but only 5 grams of crack to earn the 5 year minimum. The War on Drugs written unjustly by a scale of 100:1 resulted in enormous and racially unequal incarceration rates in the US, with most incarcerated for non-violent crimes. The US has 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. The cost to the government and to society is enormous. Black female incarceration has grown 828% during the war on drugs, and 75% are mothers with minor children. One in 3 black American men will serve time in their lifetime. And we wonder why the African American community struggles?

Have you ever said “Just stop breaking the law”? I have. It’s wishful thinking. People are not taking drugs to break the law. Despair, hopelessness and escape are more primary motivators, and incarceration doesn’t help. And it’s hypocritical. I break the law every day I drive my car. I know enforcement isn’t equal for all laws, so if I stay within 5 miles over, I’m good. But what if it was different? What if speeding carried a 5 year minimum sentence, enforced the moment you went over? How would society function if a high percentage of suburban folks were doing time on the speeding rap? It would be LEGAL, but would society flourish?

IBG continues serving incarcerated people with the Hope of the Gospel, but I encourage you to reflect on the unintended consequences of mass-incarceration. What do we seek to accomplish with tough-on-crime laws? What is it to “love mercy” and seek restored lives? Can the church more constructively bring hope into struggling communities? I think so.

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