Criminal Justice Reform

1975 Church of the Brethren Statement


Because most of our correctional centers–prisons, jails, and lock-ups–dehumanize and brutalize individuals, especially those who are poor, members of minority ethnic groups and generally the helpless members of our society;

because the writer of Hebrews wrote, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you are in prison with them” (Hebrews 13:3);

because at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he declared that he was sent to proclaim release to the captives and to set free the oppressed (Luke 4:18);

because Jesus associated with outcasts and showed compassion for the unlovable persons of his time and challenged all Christians to visit persons in prison;

we of the Church of the Brethren, North Manchester, through the South/Central District Conference of Indiana, petition the Annual Conference, meeting in June of 1974, at Roanoke, Virginia, to request the General Board to establish a task force to study, compile information on, and report to the Brotherhood at the 1975 Annual Conference appropriate means by which churches can address themselves to the issue of criminal justice reform.

Robert Beery, Moderator
Lola Sanger, Clerk

Action of 1973 District Conference

Passed to Annual Conference.

Robert Tully, Moderator
Helen Noffsinger, Writing Clerk

Action of 1974 Annual Conference

The recommendation of Standing Committee, presented by Ted Whitacre, was that the request of the query be granted. This was accepted and the query was referred to the General Board

1975 Report of the General Board

The General Board appointed a Task Force and requested that it develop a proposed answer to the query for the consideration of the Board. The Task Force was composed of Guy E. Wampler, Jr., chairperson, pastor of Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren, Fort Wayne, Ind.; David Eis of North Manchester, Ind., an employee of PACE (Public Action for Correctional Effort), an organization which aids in criminal reform, rehabilitation of inmates and ex-offenders; Robert Gross, an ex-prisoner as a non-registrant under the Selective Service System, Churubusco, Ind.; George Petsock of Harrisburg, Pa., who has served for more than twenty years in the Pennsylvania state penal system and is currently involved in the system’s community efforts for rehabilitation; Marianne Rhoades Pittman, campus ministry and counselor to youth, Champaign, Ill.; Ralph E. Smeltzer, staff representative from the General Board.

The Task Force reviewed major studies, evaluated current developments/trends, and interviewed a limited number of persons involved in various phases of the criminal justice system. These efforts led the Task Farce to the conviction that it should focus upon things that the Brethren might do–“appropriate means” in the language of the query–rather than offer theoretical study material. The report was brought to the General Board; it was discussed at length, with additional conversation between the Task Force and a smaller group of board/staff members. The report was then revised by the Task Force and brought back to the Board for discussion, revision, and action.

The General Board now presents the following report as its recommended answer to the 1974 query on Criminal Justice Reforms, and proposes its adoption for the guidance of the Brethren. (The General Board also acted to give priority to this concern by making it an explicit item in the social justice priority for 1976-77.)

The imprisoned are perhaps the most neglected and abused group in our society. Ironically, when these offenders are neglected and abused, not only they but society as well is victimized. The New Testament symbol of the towel impels Brethren to reach out to those who have been made outcasts and scapegoats. Whenever this effort is fruitful, society itself becomes healthier and more secure.

I. Some Areas of Concern

The failures of our present criminal justice system are widely apparent. The rising crime rate is one evidence that the system neither deters nor rehabilitates.

There are many specific areas of concern.

  1. The system tends to serve the powerful segments of the society and to protect property at the expense of persons.
  2. The arbitrary use of discretionary power in dealing with offenders often punishes the poor and powerless, frees the rich and powerful, and allows the prejudices of society to run unchallenged.
  3. Our social institutions, including families, schools, welfare agencies, and churches, share a responsibility for creating or permitting the conditions which result in criminal behavior.
  4. Racial, ethnic, and sexual discrimination is prevalent, and damaging to persons.
  5. The public has come to accept many misconceptions:
    1. that prisons protect us from crime.
    2. that reformatories reform, correctional centers correct, penitentiaries teach penitence.
    3. that incarceration rehabilitates.
    4. that most people in prison are dangerous.
    5. that one must be an expert in criminology to help a law offender.
    6. that poor people and minority groups are more inclined to commit crimes than others.
    7. that more money for police, police hardware, judges, and jails will make our society safer.
    8. that “model prison behavior” signifies rehabilitation.
    9. that most lawbreakers are in jail or prison.
    10. that all persons in jail are guilty.
  6. The education, training, and salaries or police, correctional officers, and keepers of the jail frequently are not commensurate with their job requirements.
  7. Prosecutors often use grand juries as a rubber stamp to bring criminal charges, and on occasion to harass citizens, to abuse their rights and liberties, or to pursue political purposes.
  8. Jails, prisons, and lockups are at best human warehouses and at worst brutal unsanitary dens. Incarceration itself is dehumanizing and takes away from persons their economic base, breaks down their family ties, and separates them from helpful community resources.
  9. The demoralizing homosexual assaults and abuse by inmates in the prison upon short or long sentenced individuals entering the correctional institution which often leaves the individual with life long emotional and moral scars.
  10. Many alleged offenders are kept in jail solely because of inability to pay bail money.
  11. Too much money, effort, and time are spent on security and far too little on helping prisoners develop skills and attitudes for re-integration into society.
  12. Offenders are limited to “doing time” as punishment rather than using time for personal growth or direct and meaningful restitution to the offended.
  13. The carrot-stick philosophy in which the promise of release is conditional upon “model” prison behavior is one of the most cruel aspects of incarceration.
  14. Parole boards often base their decisions about the amount of time to be served on insufficient and inaccurate information which is not subject to public scrutiny or due process.
  15. In many areas young people are oftentimes incarcerated with adults for offenses which would not be considered offenses if they were adults.

II. Acting Out God’s Justice and Love

In offering guidance to Brethren who seek to express Christian concern in the area of criminal justice we see three general approaches: working with individual offenders, reforming the system, and living an alternative. We believe that each of these approaches has validity within the Christian context. We encourage Brethren to be challenged by all of these recommendations and to act upon that combination which is consistent with their convictions.

A. Working with Individual Offenders

Those who make direct contact with prisoners and their families touch one of the bitterest aspects of incarceration–isolation. This ministry can be a demonstration of agape love, and might be expressed in a variety of ways:

  1. Visiting incarcerated persons as a friend and advocate. (Because of differences in social, economic and religious backgrounds, Brethren need to avoid being judgmental, condescending or paternalistic.)
  2. Assisting prisoners in obtaining an attorney, in securing reading material and in purchasing items from the commissary.
  3. Helping to preserve family ties by bringing prisoners information about their families, assisting family members in obtaining transportation to and from the prison, and seeing that dependents are cared for.
  4. Offering to teach academic subjects, crafts, music, drama, and to lead group counseling and recreation.
  5. Providing worship opportunities and counseling where desired.
  6. Helping ex-offenders find meaningful employment and, if necessary, suitable lodging. (According to authorities, the highest percentage of parole failures occur within the first six months after release, with the greater number occurring within the first sixty days.)
  7. Helping to provide bail money, thus enabling prisoners to take a larger role in preparing for their own defense and to return to their families, jobs, and other supporting relationships.
  8. Standing up with defendants in court, thus increasing their chances of avoiding incarceration.

B. Reforming the System

Some Brethren show an increasing interest in systemic change. A strength of this approach is that it can multiply the number of beneficiaries. These Brethren are encouraged to work for the following changes:

  1. That alternatives to incarceration and diversion programs (detoxification centers for the care of alcohol and drug abusers, halfway houses, release on recognizance, bail reform, trial diversion to allow for resolution before charges are filed, probation, work/study releases, and weekend sentences) be used whenever applicable.
  2. That paying bail bond for release pending trial be replaced by a more just system which might include release to the supervision of a responsible person, a nonprofit agency, a probation or parole officer, or, as a last resort, detention with release during certain hours.
  3. That prison populations be reduced instead of building new prisons.
  4. That more community-based correctional centers be established in order to keep offenders close to home and utilize existing community resources for rehabilitation.
  5. That offenders to be incarcerated be given a choice between a sentence which is automatically completed when contracted objectives are achieved and a sentence which is completed at the end of a fixed period.
  6. That more appropriate and helpful means be found to deal with offenses such as vagrancy, drug use, drunkenness, gambling, and prostitution. (At present, half of those arrested and half of those in local jails are charged with these offenses.)
  7. That appropriate legislation be enacted and enforced to guarantee minimum standards for all jails and prisons and to safeguard the right of prisoners to due process.
  8. That behavior modification methods such as shock and drug therapy never be administered unless freely chosen by a prisoner under no threat or coercion.
  9. That the use of capital punishment be abolished.
  10. That all incarcerated defendants be guaranteed the right to trial within sixty days.
  11. That the constitutional independence between grand juries and prosecutors be restored or alternate safeguards be provided in order to prevent prosecutors from using grand juries for political purposes, harassment and the curtailment of citizen rights and liberties.
  12. That youth offenders be housed only with their peer group.

C. Living an Alternative

Some Brethren believe that Christians are especially called and uniquely enabled to offer a response wholly different from that of the criminal justice system. These members are encouraged to:

  1. Actively seek relationships with offenders, and those in danger of becoming offenders, in an effort to provide a constructive and supportive influence.
  2. Be open to accepting offenders into their communities, homes and businesses, and to inviting judges and probation authorities to place accused or convicted persons in their care rather than in prison.
  3. Consider carefully whether it is in harmony with the teaching to overcome evil with good to report wrongs done against themselves to police authorities.
  4. Avoid employment or direct participation in the operation of the criminal justice system, and urge others to consider their own participation in light of New Testament teaching.

III. Implementation

To affirm and implement the goals of this statement, the 1975 Annual Conference:

  1. Asks the General Board to make criminal justice reform and ministry to offenders and to the victims of crimes a 1976-77 program priority with appropriate staffing and funding. This would include providing continuing motivation, guidance and assistance, and the use of a communications network.
  2. Calls upon the church, especially districts, to initiate and develop creative ministries and constructive action, and to mobilize for an intensive effort in key areas where opportunity, resources, and need seem greatest.

Clyde R. Shallenberger, Chairman
S. Loren Bowman, General Secretary

Action of 1975 Annual Conference

;The report was presented by Clyde Shallenberger, Guy Wampler, Jr., chairman of the task force, and other members of the committee. The report was adopted with a number of changes and amendments which are incorporated in the above wording.