Need ‘Sea Change’ in Attitudes on Criminal Justice

By Stan Friedman

JACKSON, MS (December 12, 2011) –Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) representatives who attended a recent “criminal justice think tank” at the John Perkins Foundation say they hope the meeting will lead to an expanded response by the denomination on the issue and a broader collaboration with other organizations.

Others attending the event include leaders of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), the Perkins Center, and other ministers active in dealing with “mass incarceration” of African Americans and Hispanics.

The issue should be a priority for the denomination, says Donn Engebretson, ECC executive vice president. “The mass incarceration of people of color in such enormous numbers for non-violent crimes has been described as a ‘Katrina’ of devastation in communities of color in our nation,” he explains. “This complex but tragic reality needs the active ministry, the voice and the action of the church.”

Engebretson adds that he hopes the Covenant will experience “a tipping point of awareness of this tragedy within the Evangelical community. I would pray for the kind of sea change in attitudes toward criminal justice that could break this deadly cycle of mass incarceration.”

The issue is one that affects “a shocking number of people” in the Covenant who are connected in some way with the system, ranging from chaplains to prison guards to inmates,” says Chrissy Palmerlee, who works in the Department of Compassion, Mercy, and Justice (CMJ). “Covenanters do not realize how many Covenant families have an incarcerated member. It’s a shameful thing for families.”

The think tank enabled participants to begin “naming the beast” and considering how they might address criminal justice inequities that are rooted in layers upon layers of contributing factors, says Debbie Blue, CMJ executive minister.

“A problem well-defined is a problem half-solved,” speaker Matthew J. Watts, the pastor of Grace Bible Church in Charleston, West Virginia, told the group.

The meeting, which was held November 13-15, was the latest step the denomination has taken to address the issue since Covenant Annual Meeting delegates approved the “Resolution on Criminal Justice” in 2010. The Covenant has sponsored two regional roundtable discussions and an affinity group meeting of people who are working within various parts of the system.

The think tank was a broadening and deepening of the Covenant’s involvement, says Blue. “I think this was a good first step in working with experts outside the Covenant,” she adds.

Blue says the next step is to consider how the Covenant might participate in a coalition of evangelical organizations to fight injustices in the legal system.

Denominational leaders at national and conference levels are expanding their understanding of the issue as they read and discuss the critically acclaimed book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, says Engebretson.

“Twenty years from now when people ask me, ‘How did you respond to the tragedy of mass incarceration?’, I do not want my answer to be the same as so many evangelicals who stood by the sidelines during the Civil Rights movement,” Engebretson says. “I pray that my response is that I was among those who made a difference and joined our God in making things right.”

Other Covenanters attending the conference included Don Davenport, Henry Greenidge, Dominique Gilliard, Dave Husby, Krisann Jarvis Foss, Robert Owens, Dick Lucco, Caenisha Warren, Carol Davis, Donnie Griffin, and Larry Jackson.

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