Response to Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice

[1] “I don’t understand why you care about those people. They’re just trash, and we should throw them away. I don’t want anything to do with them.” I have become accustomed to hearing statements like these from people whom I love, who are Christian, but who do not see my work critiquing criminal justice systems in the United States, advocating for reform, and ministering to “those” people behind bars as worthwhile. I highlight this statement because I imagine similar comments may arise as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) engages in moral deliberation on criminal justice. Learning to converse with people about this issue when most would rather turn away will likely be a serious challenge to this endeavor.

[2] Reminding Christian conversation partners that our faith requires recognition that all people bear the image of God and that every person has the potential of redemption often leaves me with the feeling of being a voice crying out in the wilderness. I may believe that I do prophetic work, in the sense that I see myself as accountable to the tradition of God’s justice proclaimed by the prophets, but it is often lonely and frustrating work as well. Outside of certain circles of interlocutors, it can be difficult to find people who know about problems with criminal justice in our country, let alone care about “those” people. Because of these experiences, I am excited about the ELCA’s publication of Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice. I hope that this document may cause the many voices crying out in the wilderness of our criminal justice systems — the voices of victims, offenders, vulnerable communities, and criminal justice professionals such as police officers, lawyers, judges, and prison staff — to be heard within Lutheran communities throughout the United States.

[3] In order to further the conversation begun so well in Hearing the Cries, I would like to raise four related concerns with the study. First, while I commend the attention paid, especially in chapters one and five, to the real injustices that persons inflict on others through crime and to the needs of victims, who are too often ignored in our criminal justice systems, I wonder whether the study ought to attend also to other injustices that both foster crime and feed these systems. In chapter four, the study describes the steep growth of U.S. prison populations as well as racial and ethnic disparities in these systems. More attention needs to be paid to why this growth has occurred and why the incarceration rate of black males is six times that of white males.1 Studies of our criminal justice systems have found that these incarceration rates have not necessarily made our communities any safer and that African-Americans in particular are arrested at much higher rates than whites even though their criminal offending rates are not markedly different from those of whites.2

[4] The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has recently begun a campaign that suggests that these data are the result of a “Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline” that shuttles minority youth into our prisons because of the interlinking dynamics of pervasive poverty, inadequate access to health coverage, gaps in early childhood development, disparate educational opportunities, abuse, neglect, substance abuse, mental and emotional problems, and an overburdened, ineffective juvenile justice system.3 People concerned with criminal justice must attend to the injustices of these systems as much as they attend to the injustices of individual crimes. They must also address how social injustices such as those highlighted by CDF relate to criminal justice. While concern with these systemic problems is not absent from Hearing the Cries, prefacing the study with more information about the broader context of our criminal justice systems might give participants in these discussions a fuller understanding of the nature of these problems.

[5] Closely related to this issue is another concern: that in addition to law enforcement, the judicial system, and corrections, a comprehensive response to criminal justice must also address policy and policymakers. Much of the ramping up of criminal justice systems in the United States since the 1970s has occurred because of the decisions made not by criminal justice professionals, but by politicians who have depended upon “tough on crime” images for election and by the people who voted for them. Some of these decisions relate directly to criminal justice policy, such as the use of certain policing strategies, emphasis on drug crimes in law enforcement, limitation of judicial discretion through mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines, three-strikes laws, juvenile-transfer laws, use of private prisons, and defunding of rehabilitative alternatives.

[6] Other decisions have had unintended effects on criminal justice, such as lack of adequate funding for healthcare (especially mental health and substance abuse treatment), immigration policy, and housing and education policy. The scope of these decisions both directly and indirectly related to criminal justice extends beyond the intent of the ELCA’s study. However, the three areas of criminal justice discussed in Hearing the Cries are fundamentally formed by policy and policymakers in ways that limit the power of law enforcement, court, and correctional officers to bring about change from within these systems. The effects of policy and policymakers — and of our choices as voters — must receive fuller consideration if we are to reform criminal justice in the United States.

[7] Third, in discussing criminal justice policy, I am often asked, “Well, would you just let everyone go free?” One of the challenges with conversations about these issues is that many people believe that our only options are incarceration or nothing at all. They then find it difficult to think of other possibilities for responding to people who commit crime. Hearing the Cries highlights restorative justice as another course of action that could provide an alternative to retributive responses that undergird incarceration. Nevertheless, the document does not provide adequate information on rehabilitation. Since the 1970s, many people have believed that “nothing works” in terms of rehabilitation, and so have resorted to retributive frameworks for criminal justice despite the long precedent in U.S. history of these systems depending upon rehabilitative ideals. Criminologists, however, have made great strides since the 1970s in describing evidence-based rehabilitative practices that decrease recidivism.

[8] Appropriate rehabilitative interventions with high-risk offenders show the highest rate of recidivism reduction when compared with both incarceration and restorative justice; they contribute to a decrease in re-offending of about twenty-six percent.4 If treatment is delivered in the community rather than in prison or residential settings, recidivism is reduced even more — about thirty-five percent. Rehabilitation may offer means of responding to crime besides incarceration, and a rehabilitative framework that emphasizes the reintegration of people who commit crime as full members of our communities could partner well with a restorative justice framework. Of course, not everyone will respond to either rehabilitation or restorative justice; incarceration will remain necessary in some cases for the purposes of public safety. However, the failure to consider alternatives to incarceration and retribution often leaves discussions of criminal justice stuck with only those responses to crime.

[9] Finally, Hearing the Cries concludes with “suggestions for how faith communities can be healing communities” with respect to criminal justice (61). These suggestions include being a praying, informed, and safe community; being a visiting, remembering, and welcoming community; being a resourceful, mentoring, and welcoming community; and being an empowering community. I want to ask my question here with some humility; I am not a member of the Lutheran community (I am Roman Catholic), and I recognize the many downfalls of my own tradition. That being said, I hope that you will hear this question from an outsider who is seeking allies in the work for both criminal and social justice: What about being a prophetic community?

[10] Elements of Hearing the Cries are prophetic — in fact, the entire task set forth by the ELCA of communal moral deliberation about criminal justice in the United States is prophetic, calling us to remember God’s justice proclaimed by the prophets. Addressing the challenges of criminal justice will require more than attending to the needs of victims, offenders, and communities in the wake of individual crimes. This problem demands attention to the broader context of these systems in a society plagued by economic and racial/ethnic disparities. Affecting social and criminal justice policy in our country will require prophetic voices. Only through prophetic engagement with these challenges will we be able to realize alternatives to more incarceration, more retribution, more injustice. Being a prophetic community may be necessary for fostering social and criminal justice that offer healing and wholeness to all of its members.


1. Heather C. West, “Prison Inmates at Midyear 2009 — Statistical Tables,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, posted June 2010, (accessed on July 21, 2010). The incarceration rate for black non-Hispanic U.S. resident males is 4,749 per 100,000; for white non-Hispanic U.S. resident males, it is 708 per 100,000; and for Hispanic U.S. resident males, it is 1,822 per 100,000.

2. Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate (New York: The New Press, 2006), 177–186.

3. Children’s Defense Fund, “America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline,” October 2007,

4. James Bonta, et al., “Restorative Justice and Recidivism: Promises Made, Promises Kept?,” in Handbook of Restorative Justice: A Global Perspective, ed. Dennis Sullivan and Larry Tifft (New York: Routledge, 2006). This study by Bonta and his colleagues is a meta-analysis of all published evaluations of restorative justice programs of all types in comparison with incarceration and rehabilitative alternatives. The authors define “appropriate rehabilitative interventions” in terms of three factors: risk, need, and responsiveness. This definition is based upon a study by D.A. Andrews, James Bonta, and R.D. Hoge, “Classification for Effective Rehabilitation: Rediscovering Psychology,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 17 (1990): 19–52. The factor of risk indicates that “the intensity of human service intervention should be proportional to the offender’s risk to re-offend … treating low-risk offenders has minimal impact on recidivism” (Bonta, et al. (2006), 111). The needs addressed by interventions should be criminogenic, such as “substance abuse, cognitions supportive of crime, and social support for crime,” versus non-criminogenic needs, such as self-esteem. Finally, programs should be responsive to the particular capacities and motivations of offenders.

Amy Levad

Amy Levad is an assistant professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a member of the Society of Christian Ethics (SCE).