As the number of people incarcerated in the United States decreases, advocates for criminal justice reform are cautiously optimistic about the potential for more humane sentencing options. But a more humane criminal justice system isn’t an inevitability, and recent trends in religious participation nationwide point to a harsher possibility.
As the country’s participation in formalized religion decreases, the essential messages that churches convey about forgiveness and redemption are lost in favor of starker views of good and evil — ones that spell trouble for advocates of criminal justice reform.
Although we often don’t think of churches and prisons in the same context, the two are inextricably linked — and have been since the founding of the nation’s first prisons.
The American criminal justice system as we know it, which dates to the early 1800s, was heavily influenced by religion from the start. Puritan society viewed public humiliation as a cornerstone of criminal justice, turning the system into an overt “morality play” that would warn others away from unwanted behavior. Punishment tended to be corporal and public, a penalty for the offender and a deterrent for the community.
Starting in the late 1820s, however, Quakers introduced the idea of prisons as a way to make justice more humane. While behind bars, they argued, people would have a chance to spend time alone with the Bible, reflect on their sins and reform themselves to be repentant and dutiful citizens. Although it was largely a failure because of an overzealous emphasis on solitary confinement, this marked the first time the prison system took on rehabilitation as part of its mandate.
These two competing theories formed the yin and the yang of the American criminal justice system, and both were molded around Christian religious principles. Both Old Testament and New Testament fundamentals — the former focused on retribution and punishment and the latter on rehabilitation and redemption — were present.
And even as a New Testament sensibility has come to infuse part of the criminal justice terrain — there are fewer states that use capital punishment, for instance — the Old Testament view of prison as retribution made a comeback in the 1980s.
Throughout the early 20th century, the population of the criminal justice system remained relatively stable, growing in accordance with general population growth. But starting in the 1980s, an explosion of new laws and policies began to imprison more people for longer periods of time. During the War on Drugs, particularly, hundreds of thousands of people — mainly poor and black — were put behind bars, even for nonviolent and first-time offenses, leading to more people sentenced for drug offenses today than were in the system for any reason before 1980.
Even as crime rates nationwide decreased in the 1990s, prisons began to outgrow their capacities, and private corporations entered the fray as providers of prisons, the staff to fill them and the services within them, such as health care. The private industry’s interest came with strings attached, as contracts often included “lockup quotas” that spurred further harsh sentences to keep prison cots filled.
Even though the criminal justice system has four main goals — deterrence, incapacitation, retribution and rehabilitation — recent decades have shown that the first three, which have roots in the original puritanical underpinnings of our penological system, have remained a critical part of the system. The trend since the 1980s toward retribution produced harsh mandatory minimum sentences, which prevent judges from considering special circumstances, and three-strikes laws, which impose life sentences on people with repeat offenses. Such Old Testament morality doesn’t allow for people to have second chances and seek reform — it transforms the government into a vengeful god who doles out punishment without providing adequate tools to seek redemption.
Sometimes, those punishments abolish the potential for redemption altogether. Courts are still arguing over whether juveniles who commit crimes can be sentenced to life without parole, and more than 30 states still allow this option.
This doesn’t mean that the New Testament’s emphasis on redemption is lost in our modern system. Many religious conservatives are deeply invested in prison reform (although sentencing reform is less common). Prison ministries that teach the Bible to incarcerated people are common. Legislative reform, such as the FIRST STEP Act, which provides for more in-prison programming, was endorsed by a coalition of more than 20 church groups.
But the modern appearances of New Testament redemption are backed by churches — and as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman once noted, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” Trump’s base, the one that propelled him into the White House, may not be as interested in seeing New Testament values represented in criminal justice reform, and has brought forth instead a fire-and-fury version of justice that has shaped the administration’s policies.
The figurehead of justice, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has been adamant for years that sentencing hasn’t been tough enough, and has refused to consider sentencing reform that would stem the flow of people into an already overloaded prison system. Trump himself favors the puritanical view of criminal justice, noting that his favorite Bible verse is “an eye for an eye.”
This stricter mind-set has the potential to push us backward into the Puritan morality plays present in the origins of American punishment — ones where the public watches scornfully, but has no interest in helping those who have done wrong find the right path. When advocates of criminal justice reform try for truly meaningful change, including lenient sentencing and stronger options for restorative justice, they may hit a wall of disapproval, both from an unforgiving public and a hostile administrative branch.
That isn’t likely to change soon — although 87 percent of Democrats think the prison population should be reduced, that number sags to a mere 52 percent of Trump supporters. Even previously bipartisan efforts for improved rehabilitation are being thrown out, and if the trend continues, many more may be on the chopping block, undoing decades of progress.
There is one bright spot. The “eye for an eye” rhetoric that carried Trump to the White House may harm national efforts at criminal justice reform but could result in a stronger push for improvements at the state and local levels. Ohio, for instance, has made investments in community treatment as an alternative to prison for people with drug violations, and the city of Topeka, Kan., is experimenting with alternative sentencing courts to better suit the needs of people with mental illness.
But even as local progress inches forward, the Trump administration is inflicting lasting damage everywhere. The administration is fanning the flames of a vengeful public, and with a base less tied to churches to remind them of the benefits of redemption, criminal justice reforms may well continue to lose momentum.