This week is locked in solidarity week created by our friends at Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) to shine a light on mass incarceration. Many justice challenges are big, but there are three practical ways you can be involved in promoting justice, not jails.
First, do justice not jails through custom notifications
Custom notifications are part of an anti-violence preventative measure implemented by the Chicago Police and others across the nation. Police know the bad actors in a community. Prior to violence they go to where the individual lives and give them a choice. The police will stop them if they must, but help them if they can. Pastors, moms of gang violence victims, and community agency leaders go with the police. This community support has significant impact in helping people leave a life of violence.
The other individuals the police see are victims of violence, particularly targeted victims. These individuals know the next bullet could be their last but they don’t know a way to break the cycle. When a mom shares the grief of losing a child on the streets even the most hardened gang member is often brought to tears. When pastors, agencies and police come together to relocate, help with new housing, and offer support we stop the supply chain of jails.
How you can promote justice not jails through violence reduction
Every community can work together to reduce violence. Systemically this involves building networks of faith and trust in a community. The best example is our friends at Together Chicago. Their bold vision is “to renew Chicago, together with churches, businesses, community leaders and government officials to inspire hope within the communities we serve.”
Together Chicago identified 5 major pillars needed to stabilize communities and avoid the filling of jails.
Every church has employers. Work with business leaders to hire locally.
Get into local schools and provide tutoring, promote reading, and do after school activities to help working parents so kids aren’t off on their own.
Talk to your local police about custom notifications. Make yourself available as an alternative. Years ago police were handing out code violations in the city of Elgin for houses not up to code. Senior citizens were being fined $100 a day simply because the city had no better alternative. We stepped in and brought together churches and our legal team. Lawyers negotiated fair resolutions without incurring extra time and cost to city resources. Police handed out flyers of local church work teams willing to come help when the resident was not able to perform the work. The community was stronger and avoided the need for fines and jails.
Faith Community Mobilization
The faith community should not be a gated community. Live outside your walls. Get into the streets, discover the needs, listen to the community and then get involved. The best way to start is with prayer. Dr. John Fuder leads this initiative with Together Chicago. He is prayer warrior with a true heart for the city. I highly recommend his books on neighborhood mapping for prayer. Intentionally pray for your community and God will reveal the means to come alongside your neighbors.
We lead this area in partnership with Together Chicago. Every community has legal needs. Every community should have a gospel justice center to meet those needs. Consider one story of a 12-year-old African American boy. The truancy officer called his single mom to warn her of the boys not being in school. The education piece is critical. Out of school the boy was a prime target for recruitment to a life of violence.
But why was the boy not in school? The mom was in a small accident. As a single mom working hard to support her son she did not have time to address the safety responsibility notice she received. She did not understand it. Ignoring it led to the suspension of her driver’s license. Now she lost her job and had no way to get her son to school. Dominoes caused by a relatively simple legal issue that without the help of an attorney could destroy a family and community. With the help of an attorney and a team of caring individuals, the trajectory is changed entirely.
Visit our web site to see how the local church can be a catalyst for change by establishing a no cost legal ministry in your community.
Second, do justice not jails through prison ministry
The first step is preventative. The second is presence. There are many excellent prison ministries to connect you with local inmates. Remind those in jails that they follow a long line of Biblical heroes who committed crimes or were accused of crime – Joseph, Moses, Daniel, David, Paul, Peter and Jesus. Remind them that one decision does not define them. They are not a “felon”, they are a child of God who promises to never leave them or forsake them if they are willing to receive the free gift of his grace.
Outside of jails continue to advocate for reform. The First Step Act recently signed into law by the President is a good start. The law prohibits barbaric restraints on pregnant inmates and restores some freedom to judges to avoid the three felony convictions resulting in automatic life sentences. There is a modest change in calculating good behavior time served. This is an important first step but it is a baby step.
The mass incarceration system in America is comprised of local jails, prisons and the re-entry challenges of former inmates. I posted a helpful article last year which I recommend, “How can I do justice for incarcerated neighbors?” The graphic I created at that time is still helpful.
The First Step Act only applies to 181,000 inmates in the federal system. That is a small subset of the 2.3 million in prison which is a small subset of the larger mass incarceration problem. But it is a good first step. Become educated and continue to promote reform in our jails and prisons.
Third, do justice not jails by welcoming returning citizens
The greatest challenge to our neighbors serving time is reentry. There are 46,000 legal barriers greeting them upon their return. I briefly described the problem and opportunity a legal ministry provides in removing legal barriers in a blog post on The Challenge of Mass Incarceration.
There are many opportunities to support returning citizens. There are many opportunities to advocate for changes in laws creating barriers in housing, employment, voting and more. One way is to provide fairness in employment opportunity by allowing formerly incarcerated to compete on the merits rather than be disadvantaged by a check box indicating a prior record. This is commonly referred to as “ban the box.” Learn where your state stands and fight for fairness.
Finally, join our friends at CCDA in promoting Biblical awareness of this important issue. They have excellent toolkits and resources available. We should remember our faith follows a convicted felon. He identifies with the prisoner who he came to set free. That includes you and me.