Response to Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice

[1] Hearing the Cries:Faith and Criminal Justice opens the door to a long overdue conversation about beliefs, values, experiences, practices, and policies that profoundly affect all of us. I approached my reading of Hearing the Cries with a deep sense of gratitude for the work of the task force and staff, and a feeling of some relief that our reorganized churchwide structure retains capacity for addressing critical issues at the intersection of faith and life which cry out for our public witness. Dr. John Orr, affiliated with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, once told me that ELCA social statements are so thoughtful and well done that they bring tears to his eyes.

[2] If Hearing the Cries succeeds in inviting conversation, and in informing, challenging, and guiding the church in action, as I hope it will, there will indeed be cries to share, hear, and compel us to think about our response as people, individually and as a church body, who are set free by God’s grace to recognize that all are created by God and are loved by God. We will learn much from each other about the components of the criminal justice system — law enforcement, courts, and corrections. The many references to racial and ethnic disparities, and the role of poverty, are essential elements. And through our conversations, we will be drawn into deeper explorations of themes less developed in the study, such as prevention of crime; fear and tolerance of risk; brain development and early childhood and adolescent health; family stability; media and a culture of violence; white collar, financial, and cyber crimes; organized crime and drug-, gun-, and human- trafficking gangs and cartels; addictions of various kinds; the role of technology (DNA, crime labs, remote sensing and surveillance, use of data, and the tools and technology of violence, e.g. firearms); and even capital punishment.

A Sunday in Sacramento
[3] On the day I began my reading of Hearing the Cries, I worshipped at the congregation where the Lutheran Office of Public Policy in California is located. St. John’s is a large, historic, vibrant urban congregation with members of diverse views, life experiences, and vocations that have informed my work as a state public policy director. On this morning, when God set before us the choice of life and death (Deut. 30), I sat behind a federal judge finally confirmed in the lame-duck session of Congress, and a couple who are both federal prosecutors. I pondered the image of a prosecutor’s hands clasped with the judge’s during the Lord’s Prayer and what that might mean for courtroom ethics.

[4] A few rows up sat the wife and children of a California Highway Patrol officer, assigned to the Office of Capitol Protection and someone I occasionally encounter at Capitol events, including vigils and rallies. Somewhere in church was the administrator of the Sacramento County court system. From where I sat, I could not tell if the high-profile criminal defense attorney, grandson-in-law of one of the late pastors, was in his regular pew with his family. As we entered church together a couple of weeks earlier, I mentioned that I was noting crime stories that involved alcohol abuse in my attempt to understand our criminal justice system and advocate for more revenue from alcohol taxes at a time when prison expenditures have been the fastest growing portion of the state budget. He had defended someone convicted of killing a 25-year-old woman and shooting several others in an alcohol-fueled incident. He quipped that he is not the one that people send teddy bears to, and added that I would “never run out of material.”

[5] After worship, the judge and I were talking about our respective Kansas travel plans, my hope for a spiritual “fix” from Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew at Bethany College, and her pilgrimage to the Mennonite (her tradition) quilt and craft sale. An older couple tried to get my attention, and tears welled up as I broke away from my conversation and saw that the man was holding a photo of my forestry fire crew from about 1973. Their son and I had been part of a “band of brothers” for five seasons (women were integrated under court order in 1977). I knew vaguely that my crewmate was Lutheran, but we lived in different towns and in 1975 the crew split up. I lost contact until a reference to his name 25 years later at St. John’s. A pastor confirmed that Steve was killed in a traffic accident, by a woman high on marijuana, in 1977. His grave is about a mile from my home. In looking at the old photo, I saw the young man who was a ward of the California Youth Authority and lived at the nearby Milhous (cousin of the late president) Ranch for boys. His parents were Hell’s Angels in Richmond, and he joked about purse-snatching there to get spending money. The father of another crewmate was a Department of Fish and Game Deputy Director, an agency with its own set of law enforcement challenges and dangers. The driver of our fire engine left the next year to become an Arkansas State Trooper.

[6] As I left worship, I was feeling excited about the talent and experience that this congregation could bring to the social statement process, mixed with raw emotions of grief over the loss of a young life with so much potential, a grief experienced to some degree every week when I greet his parents. In seeking to practice moral deliberation, imagine Steve’s parents, the court administrator, and others in the room when I organized a ballot proposition forum on California’s Prop. 19, an unsuccessful November initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use — led by the defense attorney and one of the federal prosecutors! (Their consensus, and the dominant view in the room, was that this was not a good initiative.)

[7] Sunday evening, after reading Hearing the Cries through for the first time, I turned on the TV news. Expecting the usual dose of mayhem in a large urban area, I was not prepared for what I saw. The newspaper headlines the next morning cried out, “Teens’ shooting leaves 3 bodies in front yard” on the front page and “Homicide shatters quiet street” across the front of the “Our Region” section. A drive-by shooting killed three young men on bicycles, reported to be ages 15, 16, and 20, seconds before the homeowner came home from shopping. He thought that they had been hit by a car. To the north a few miles, a father shot his 11-year-old daughter in the arm as she reached for the phone to call 9-1-1 because her father tried to tie up her mother. As she ran to a neighbor’s house, her father shot her mother in the head in front of their 5-year-old twins. Another story noted that applications for concealed firearms permits had gone up more than eight-fold from 2008 to 2010, suggesting budget-driven layoffs in law enforcement were the primary cause. Still another story reported that a 3-year-old accidentally shot himself in the head at home, in a Shasta County community where as a firefighter I once helped load a woman into a helicopter after she was shot in the face by her drunk boyfriend.

Public Policy — a Blend of Reason and Emotion
[8] In my work as a public policy educator and advocate, I have encouraged a healthy blend of reason and emotion, a mix of stories and statistics. Veteran legislators will acknowledge the power of story in driving public policy. The practice of “Tombstoning” legislation and ballot initiatives — naming them after a victim — has become more common. I have gotten to know the parents of Laura. Laura’s Law aims to strengthen the ability of law enforcement to hold mentally ill people who may be a threat to others, but its implementation is still subject to controversy. Nineteen-year-old Laura was among those killed in a shooting rampage by a mentally ill person who had an arsenal in his home, and who is now confined to a state hospital for the criminally insane (where a couple of staff deaths at the hands of patients have occurred in the last few months, and where the Protestant chaplain is an ELCA pastor). Unlike many members of victims’ families who advocate for longer prison terms and more restrictive parole, Laura’s parents, of the Quaker persuasion, have honored her legacy by pursuing public policy advocacy for better mental health services, an end to the death penalty, and stronger firearms regulation.

[9] California has strong laws regulating firearms, but Laura’s parents and other advocates of firearms regulation are acutely aware of gun trafficking that occurs over our borders from Nevada and Arizona. Thus, given the body count of gun violence, it is appropriate to remember that an ELCA churchwide assembly resolution called for strict regulation of assault weapons and handguns (found in a footnote to the ELCA Message on Community Violence, a message whose roots are in the 1989 mass shooting at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, adjacent to what was then Faith Lutheran Church).

[10] Rhetoric on the subject of criminal justice often includes phrases such as “common sense” and “feel good” measures. Hearing the Cries can be a tool for exploring the role of emotion and the role of reason in shaping policy and practice. It should invite and honor the expressions of deep grief, and even rage. Years ago I read in Christian Century that we are entitled to a visceral “Goddamn” once in a while. I felt that three years ago when a former high school baseball teammate of my son’s, and a full-ride scholar at Cal, was gunned down on Martin Luther King Blvd., a mile south of the church where I am a member, on a bright afternoon while I was doing yard work there. But in the end, our appreciation of reason should move us to embrace phrases like “best practices,” “outcomes-based budgeting,” and “evidence-based programs.”

Direct Democracy — The Initiative Process
[11] Much of California’s public policy is shaped by the most liberal application of direct democracy in the world, through the initiative, referendum, and recall. Criminal justice initiatives have been no small part of that, as tough-on-crime attitudes, wrenching cases of horrific violence, and, in some cases, partisan efforts to get out the vote for candidates have led to initiatives restoring the death penalty, enacting a fairly rigid “three strikes” law, and passing harsher sentences for juvenile offenders. Several have dealt with protecting children’s or victims’ rights (Meghan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, Marsy’s Law). At least one, “three strikes,” is in the political sacred cow category (idolatry?), and a political third rail. All of these come with a price tag, and none with a funding source. These and other initiatives have contributed to calls for initiative reform in the form of “pay-as-you-go” funding sources that are clearly identified. In the case of Jessica’s Law, the state sex offender management board acknowledged an 800% increase in transient homelessness among the population they are supposed to monitor, and called for changing the initiative which has created unworkable (and inhumane?) residency restrictions. And what are we as Christians to make of the term “sexually violent predator,” the official classification for the “patients” of a state hospital? I once announced at a church event that a position for Protestant chaplain was open for the 1,000 men there, which sucked the air out of the room.

[12] California also enacted an initiative to divert those convicted of lower drug crimes into treatment programs. It is severely underfunded, and although it can be gamed and abused, it has demonstrated success. The overall consequences of the initiative process are a mixed bag from the standpoint of cost-effective protection for society and reduction in crime. Questions for Lutherans in initiative states include: How do we responsibly exercise our role as voters and legislators in making public policy ourselves? What do we value? How do we pay for it? What level of risk can we tolerate? How do we change course later if necessary? Last year I attended the Global Forum on Direct Democracy in San Francisco and learned that there is a growing movement of people who want to bring the initiative process to states who lack that blessing/curse. The word from California is to be alert concerning: the mechanics of the process, the role of campaign contributions, the potential to be hijacked by partisan interests, and the ability to amend those that have passed. To oversimplify California’s experience, direct democracy has been a vehicle for a fear-based, “pay-any-price” philosophy of public safety that manipulates public opinion and that we can no longer afford in the context of a $26.6 billion deficit.

Addictions and Advocacy
[13] A few years ago, Martin Marty spoke on the topic of the “public church” at the Farstrup-Mortensen Lectures at Bethania Lutheran in Solvang, California. Toward the end of his remarks, he offered the observation that perhaps our standing with and helping people in their addictions might be more effective than our policy pronouncements. In a June, 2010, lecture on the history of social concerns in the Augustana Lutheran Church, Larry Rasmussen concluded that a primary focus of Augustana for much of its life was the temperance movement. The day before the Marty lecture, without him in the room, but with Rep. Lois Capps in the back, I awkwardly tried to express some laments and connect some dots for a former moderate Republican legislator. An Episcopalian and prominent winemaker, his main lecture points were that he had been demonized by the “Christian right,” that churches should avoid “politics,” and that he was now focused on fixing potholes as a county supervisor. In my attempt to identify more serious local responsibilities in the virtual shadow of the Indian casino which is the largest private employer in Santa Barbara County, I related the story of how my brother-in-law, a rural sheriff’s deputy (recently elected sheriff), was called out at 2 a.m. on New Year’s weekend to confirm that the gunshot death of a woman at home with her husband and three children was a suicide and not a homicide. The adults had been drinking (HBD in public safety parlance). My step-nephew, the deputy’s son, had been deployed to Iraq the same week his mother (the deputy’s ex-wife) was sent to state prison for financial crimes related to a gambling addiction at an Indian casino.

[14] Most of our churches provide space for twelve-step groups. When I see them meeting, I give thanks for the life-saving and crime-preventing work they are doing (notwithstanding the GPS ankle monitor I found this winter on the roof above the door to the twelve-step meeting room while clearing a downspout). Do we acknowledge that effort enough? It has been a slow, steady learning curve for me as I have come to understand the role of alcohol in violent crime and “accidents” which tear the fabric of family relationships and community life. This experience has included a conversation with a Lutheran who is a former president of the California Police Chiefs Association, a faith delegation conversation with the warden of San Quentin at his conference table, and conversations with domestic violence, child protection, foster care, and mental health advocates. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, for example, is linked to criminal behavior, and one advocate suggested I look at FASD history among some on death row as well. Can our church more effectively practice mercy and advocate justice in addressing addictions?

[15] Leaders who are responsible for criminal justice programs — law enforcement, district attorney, and judges — know that their efforts alone will not lead to healthier, safer communities. Fundamental is an adequate public safety net that helps meet basic survival needs. In walking with the Sacramento Police Chief for a few blocks at the annual Martin Luther King march this year, I told him about the 4Loko can I found that morning in the church lot, and wanted to ask about a couple of high-profile alcohol-related incidents (later that evening, one of his officers was punched out cold, and another suffered a possible broken foot, when they responded to a drunken family disturbance). He shifted the conversation to a litany of budget cuts in public assistance, social services, and education programs that he saw as directly linked to an increase in crime. Fight Crime/Invest in Kids is the prevention arm of police chiefs, sheriffs, and district attorneys, and they have a strong advocacy focus on early childhood and after-school programs. They understand the critical importance of early childhood and adolescent brain development. With so many of our congregations operating or housing childcare and after-school programs, can we better support their efforts and those of others, and join them in a prevention conversation?

Awareness, Accompaniment, Solidarity, and Engagement
[16] Hearing the Cries invites people to dig into the ambiguities, complexities, and conflicting values inherent in questions of crime, punishment, and restoration. It invites us to walk and stand with all who are more deeply involved than the “average” taxpayer and citizen. Father Greg Boyle in Tattoos on the Heart, and the words of the prophet Isaiah, remind us that we are all kin. Faced with recessionary and structural deficits, state and local governments are laying off those who protect, care for, heal, and teach. Direct supports for the most vulnerable are being reduced. With prisons as the fastest growing part of our budget in California, is it fair to say that there is a real guns-versus-butter, bread-versus-bombs tradeoff in domestic spending priorities? Polls show that Californians want to spend less on prisons, and more on law enforcement! To borrow the subtitle of UCLA professor Mark Kleiman’s book, When Brute Force Fails, can we have “less crime, and less punishment?” I’m confident that Hearing the Cries will enrich our understanding and help guide us as individuals and as a church to speak clearly and act boldly, but with humility, in ways that prevent suffering; honor experiences and vocations; challenge fear, discrimination, and dehumanization; heal wounds; and restore community in Christ’s name.

Mark Carlson is Director of the Lutheran Office of Public Policy in California.


© March / April 2011
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 11, Issue 2