Skip to main content

Culture Q&A

New trajectories

How churches and governments could improve criminal justice

New trajectories

(Marilynn K. Yee/Genesis Photos)

In WORLD’s Oct. 28 issue, Marvin Olasky interviews Anthony Bradley, religious studies professor at The King’s College in New York City and author of a forthcoming book on America’s criminal justice system. Here are additional questions and answers about criminal justice reform that we didn’t have room for in print.

Work keeps us from messing up as much as we otherwise would be likely to do—but in prison people have a lot of idle time. Instead of learning skills and becoming productive, they’re likely to return to their old ways.

When people get out, they often sit around and re-engage in the types of behaviors that got them locked up in the first place. We’ve done a poor job of spatially locating entry-level jobs in the communities where people need them.

A Christian worldview helps us to think longer term, to think in terms of families, and also to think in terms of what churches can do or often don’t do. What are you learning in your research about successful church-based programs?

Diversion programs within the juvenile system typically work this way: A judge will assign a delinquent youth to a program, usually a nonprofit one, that will work with the teen for a certain number of months. If there is progress, the judge will make a decision about the youth on the basis of that success. A group of pastors created a great program in the Bronx, Community Connect, that includes tutoring and other opportunities and leaves youths much less likely to reoffend.

What do you suggest local churches should do?

There are about 340,000 local churches in this country. If a local church simply adopted two or three ex-offenders and mentored them, discipled them, provided housing so they could get on their feet, with someone with a business helping them to gain a skillset, that would change the trajectory of our system. If an ex-offender gains skills and is encouraged to marry the woman he has fathered children with to create a family, that sends a permanent new trajectory for both him and his new wife and his kids.

What do you think of the public defender system?

The public defense system is very broken for several reasons. Mainly, it is very underfunded. Typically, if you are poor or lower class, you are at the mercy of public defenders who often have massive workloads and are overworked and underpaid. They often can’t spend the time they need to argue properly their case. Sometimes a public defender is just out of law school and up against a district attorney who graduated from a top law school and has all of the resources at his or her disposal to fight for a conviction. These public defenders are often at the mercy of their limited resources, limited skillset, limited experience, against a massive system that tends to favor the prosecutor.

Public defenders are encouraged to plea bargain?

Because of the pressure to close cases quickly, in some states you have scenarios where a public defender simply wants to encourage plea bargains. Public defenders will push defendants to plead guilty as a way to move cases forward, which is a huge disadvantage to those who are poor and unaware of their rights or the law. So they often plead guilty to things they don’t need to plead guilty for and end up being incarcerated and convicted because of that.

Let’s say you become a governor and have great authority in your state. What would you do to try to improve that system?

I’d encourage my colleagues in the state legislature to relax some of the sentencing requirements on nonviolent crimes. We’d figure out new ways to handle people who commit deviant or delinquent acts. I’d want to keep prosecutors accountable for their actions. In most states, prosecutors are immune from being held accountable, and there’s not a lot of data actually on what motivates prosecutors in terms of making decisions of what to charge people with.

You’d like to depoliticize the process?

So it’s not soft on crime vs. tough on crime. We also want to reserve the incarceration of criminals for those who have really committed the most violent sorts of acts in terms of violent crime and property crime. The culture has changed in that there is no longer shame about being incarcerated. Once, punishment and incarceration were a disincentive because people didn’t want to go to jail. But now many people don’t care about that. Programs like “Scared Straight” were a disaster because they didn’t scare people.

How would you close off the school-to-prison pipeline?

We want to get police officers out of schools and to decriminalize normal adolescent behavior, particularly with males who do stupid things. Skipping school shouldn’t be a thing you get arrested for.

Can we encourage businesses to hire ex-offenders?

States like Georgia have had some of the best successes at removing that line on the application that asks if you’ve ever committed a felony or not.

Ban the box?

That has been very successful in terms of reintegrating people into the world of work. In all these areas, we should remember a point John Pfaff made: The very last thing Jesus did on the cross was to forgive a criminal. Christians are often the least forgiving: When we see a crime committed, we want justice. What about a context of forgiveness? Which means that, yes, you pay for your crime and deal with the consequences, but we want to reconnect you with what it means to be an image bearer of God.

Back to the Reformation …

This is the base of the gospel—because of what the grace of God does for us and to us as a forgiven people, we ought to interact with our neighbors, even those who have broken the social contract, from the position of forgiveness. We want the grace of God to change you into being a different kind of person.




  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Wed, 10/18/2017 02:06 am

    Some points worth considering. Good job!