April 11: Prison, Drugs, and Peace

These are the things that you shall do:
   Speak the truth to one another,
   render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace,
   do not devise evil in your hearts against one another,
   and love no false oath;
for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord.
Zechariah 8:16-17

Sometimes the words of the prophets sound a little abstract. What does it mean that we should not “devise evil in our hearts” or pass judgments that “make for peace”? Isn’t the real world of justice and law actually quite complicated?

The proof is in the quality of life in our community. We must look at the results of our justice system to see if peace is being made. Is there wellbeing, prosperity, abundance in our neighborhoods and on our streets?

The hard truth is that we have a criminal justice problem; our system does not make for peace. In fact, the more people we imprison, the worse shape our communities fall into. And we are imprisoning more and more people: since 1985, the per capita jail population in Dallas County doubled from 1.25 to 2.52 incarcerated individuals per 1,000 residents. This closely mirrors the nationwide boom in incarceration. In 1970, one in 1,000 American adults could be found in prison; today, one in 35 adults is under some correctional supervision. 

Not only that, but the boom in prisoners inordinately affects blacks and Hispanics, who have incarceration rates 5 to 8 times higher than whites. This phenomenon has led many scholars to suggest that mass incarceration amounts to a “new Jim Crow” policy in the United States.

There are many factors at work in this terrifying shift, but one of the greatest has to do with the so-called “War on Drugs.” Rather than treating drug addiction as a general health problem, politicians in the 1970s and 1980s decided to address drugs as a criminal problem. Legislation such as mandatory sentencing and the three-strikes law virtually dooms large numbers of people to lives in and out of prison. Now that more and more prisons are privately-owned, there is greater incentive to catch even low-level drug sellers.

In other words, we are not doing a good job of making peace. When laws and policies end up putting more and more people behind bars, we should take notice — and take action.

Last year, the interfaith organizing group, Faith in Texas, released a report on the state of mass incarceration in Dallas County, entitled “Live Free’s Agenda for Ending Mass Incarceration and Criminalization.” The closing words of the report, written by Dr. Robert Baker, sound like something Zechariah might have written:

“Whether it’s the nightly news reports of dead black and brown bodies laying on pavement or the haunting absence of our loved ones who face long prison sentences, we can no longer afford to turn away from the trauma that the prison industrial complex is inflicting on our nation. Those of us who come from communities that have been ravaged by this broken system just ask that you stand with us. Don’t look away from the pain festering in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, rather, run towards the trauma. Do something about it.”

Prayer: God, we mourn with those who have loved ones in prison. We pray that you would comfort those who are in prison. We ask that you would show us how we can do something about it all. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Read the report from Faith in Texas here. Turn to pages 7 and 8 to see a scorecard on how Dallas County fares in addressing mass incarceration. Choose one of the topics to investigate, and determine what you can do to make a difference in Dallas, or in your own community.