Response to Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice

Other responses to
Hearing the Cries
James Samuel Logan
Kathryn Getek Soltis
Wayne N. Miller
Ned Wisnefske
[1] Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice aims to "inform, challenge, and guide the church into action" in responding to crime in America. It does so by highlighting the ways that crime affects our society and the moral issues embedded in them. There is a lot to like about this study. Public discussions of crime tend to focus on general rates of crime and stories of newsworthy (usually meaning extreme or otherwise unexpected) criminal behavior. All too often, the human face of criminals, victims, and people in the criminal justice system is lost. Hearing the Cries takes a broad view of the impact of crime, and it does so with a nice balance of statistical information and personal stories.

Responses to Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice

[2] I particularly appreciated the study's discussion of the costs of incarceration for criminals themselves, their families, and society as a whole. Too often public discourse about crime ignores the costs of punishment, so the message ends up being: why not lock up as many as criminals as we can afford to. The prototypic example of this approach is politicians who strive to be tougher on crime than their opponents. Certainly incarceration has a place in our society, and dispensing too little punishment creates problems, but so too does too much. This means that setting punishment levels is a delicate, nuanced matter, and we cannot conclude that more punishment is always better.

[3] Hearing the Cries gives a faith response to crime in America. While reading it, I had the nagging feeling that there is a missing piece to the puzzle. It took me a few days, but I realized what it was, in part because it pertains to a shortcoming in my own Christian faith. Namely, why don't Christians more actively minister to prisoners and other convicted criminals? This study makes a persuasive moral case that Christians should engage themselves in the lives of prisoners and other criminals, and it gives practical suggestions for doing so, such as visiting prisoners and their families. And yet, it left me wondering why Christians so rarely do so. Why isn't prison ministry part of all Christian churches and denominations? Historian Cathryn Entner Wright points out that it's ironic that Christians don't gravitate more naturally toward prison ministries since Jesus as well as many early leaders of the church, such as Paul, were prisoners themselves.1

[4] The frequent absence of ministry certainly isn't due to a lack of opportunity, for, as reported in the study, an estimated 1 in 100 Americans are currently in prison or jail. In fact, if all of America's prisoners were put into one place, they would constitute the fourth-largest city in the country with 2.3 million residents, behind Chicago (2.8 million) but ahead of Houston (2.2 million). In 2008 alone, over 700,000 people were released from prison and jail. Thus, every community in America has its share of people under or recently released from correctional supervision.

[5] It's also not for a lack of biblical direction. In Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats clearly calls Christians to minister to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick person, and the prisoner. And yet, it's my impression that many, if not most, Christians have nothing to do with prisoners. Let me give you a perfect example: me. I am an active Christian, and there's even a minimum security prison in our town, and yet in the twelve years that I've lived here, I've never once gone to visit a prisoner nor have I been encouraged to do so in church. I have even studied crime professionally, and so if any Christian should actively engage themselves in the lives of prisoners, it should be me. Yet I don't. I've fed hungry people and welcomed strangers and visited sick people, but when it comes to prisoners, I'm a goat.

[6] It's not just me. Many people keep the imprisoned at arms length. Sociologist Devah Pager illustrated this in a clever field experiment.2 She wanted to gauge if job applicants were disadvantaged by having a prison record, so she hired some young men to apply for several hundred entry-level jobs. With half of their job applications, these young men reported having a criminal record, and in the remaining applications, they did not. When they applied as convicted criminals, they received only one-half as many callbacks from potential employers as when they did not mention a criminal record. Pager explains these findings as reflecting the social stigma of a criminal record. Namely, people commonly view convicted criminals, even if they have served their time in prison, as dangerous and untrustworthy, and so people avoid them.

[7] This stigmatization is reflected in the various laws and policies that restrict the rights of convicted criminals. For example, convicted felons are barred from entering some professions, such as law, architecture, midwifery, selling insurance, and social work. (Rules vary by state). Most states also do not allow felons to vote, further contributing to their limited status as citizens. Some housing programs disallow residence to people with previous drug convictions.

[8] Stigmatization of criminals goes far beyond formal rules and policies; it's part of everyday life. Sociologist Christopher Uggen and colleagues documented this in a study of prisoners, parolees, and felony probationers.3 When interviewed, many of these convicted felons lamented the stigmatization they faced. Some viewed their status as felons as akin to a scarlet letter — permanently marking them as having done wrong. Their status left them feeling like "outsiders" and "less than an average citizen." A 25-year-old parolee described reaction to convicts as: "You broke the law, bang — you're not a part of us anymore." A 39-year-old prisoner cataloged the many ways in which being a convicted felon would disadvantage her. "It will affect my job, it will affect my education, ... custody, it can affect child support, it can affect everywhere — family, friends, housing ... re-establishing, and even the ability to go into the school and to work with my child's class." In a very real sense, America's punishment of criminals continues on long after the court sentence is served.

[9] The stigmatization of criminals creates many harms, not the least of which is potentially fostering further criminal behavior. When society labels someone as a "criminal," even for a long-ago action, this label can be incorporated into the person's self-concept and steer them toward more crime. An interviewee in Uggen's study expressed her frustration with this labeling when she exclaimed that "a lot of people like to judge you on your past mistakes. And they like to label you and not see you, but that's not the totality of my being, you know?" In addition, social stigmatization of criminals can limit their opportunities to reenter conventional society and thus push them toward the very criminal behavior that many of them are trying to escape. For example, limiting the possible jobs available to convicted criminals might push them toward criminal behavior just to pay the bills.

[10] In this context, the Christian church represents a powerful counterbalance to the impact of a criminal record. Churches are among our society's most traditional, conventional, and revered institutions. As people with a criminal record are integrated into a Christian community, they can experience a love and acceptance that stands in contrast to the cold, distancing treatment that they receive elsewhere. Furthermore, they can form new identities, as loved by God and as a member of a church community.

[11] For Christians to minister effectively to convicted criminals, we must first undo the effects of their criminal stigmatization by confronting our own fears and biases about them. Perhaps the first step for many churches would be simply to demystify prisoners. I would assume that many Christians do not have regular interaction with convicted criminals, and this lack of familiarity breeds stereotyping and suspicion. Churches can counteract it by hosting discussions about perceptions and fears about prisoners. Even more powerfully, churches can expose their members to the stories of those with criminal records, for example, by bringing former prisoners into church to tell their stories. My guess is that many Christians would respond to former prisoners and other people with criminal records with love and compassion if given the chance.

[12] Basically, the challenge here is what should Christians do with convicted criminals? A 31-year-old prisoner in Uggen's study put it this way: "Do you accept them back? Or do you keep them as outcasts?"

[13] I pray that as a result of Hearing the Cries, many Christians, myself included, bring criminal outcasts into our fold, and thus be sheep ourselves.

Bradley R. E. Wright is Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Connecticut.




1. Personal communication. February 10, 2011.

2. Pager, Devah. 2003. "The Mark of a Criminal Record." American Journal of Sociology 108(5): 937-975.

3. Uggen, Christopher, Jeff Manza, and Angela Behrens. 2004. "'Less than the Average Citizen': Stigma, Role Transition and the Civic Reintegration of Convicted Felons." Pages 258-290 in After Crime and Punishment: Pathways to Offender Reintegration, edited by Shadd Maruna and Russ Immarigeon. Cullompton, Devon, UK: Willan Publishing.



© May / June 2011
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 11, Issue 4