The criminal justice system in the U.S. isn’t broken; it’s functioning as intended.
That was a key assertion during a February 9 webinar hosted by the Equal Justice USA Evangelical Network as part of the Christian Community Development Association’s “Locked in Solidarity” national awareness and action week on mass incarceration (February 5-12).
“Journey to Justice — Advocacy that Moves Beyond the Criminal Legal System and Builds What We Need” featured Jamila Hodge, executive director of Equal Justice USA, and Sam Heath, manager of the EJUSA Evangelical Network.
“In so many communities in America — often Black or Brown communities that lack adequate resources — violence has become an epidemic,” said Hodge, who is a former federal prosecutor.
“How can the church assume its rightful place in caring for those who are marginalized and build a culture where our response to violence and harm centers healing and love, rather than punishment, police and prisons?” she asked.
The webinar aimed to “explore how churches can help influence a shift of public resources toward innovative, community-based responses to violence that are proving they can build safer and healthier communities.”
Heath said they hoped to demonstrate what it looks like “to equip Christians and churches to engage mass incarceration, to respond to it [and] to end it,” with both presenters sharing personal stories of their journey to justice with participants.
When considering a position in the prosecutor’s office, Hodge expressed surprise at the mere suggestion by a mentor that she apply. Having grown up in Detroit, she thought that “police, the [legal] system was something to be afraid of, something to be careful around.”
Initially, she thought the system just needed “the right people” to fix it, but after 12 years of working in several positions, Hodges realized that it was working as intended.
Heath, a former history teacher, said that he came to this work through teaching but also after one of his best friends was arrested and sentenced to 13 years in prison. Heath journeyed with him during and after his incarceration.
“It was my first time in prisons and seeing what they are. I no longer say the system is broken. I think the system, punishment, police and prison, all of that, I think it is constructed with intentionality and that it is effective at doing what it wants to do to whom it wants to do it to for the benefit of those that it wants to benefit,” Heath said.
The webinar continued with Hodge providing an inside look into the criminal justice system, evaluating the role that power plays for prosecuting attorneys, and deconstructing a position that serves the people but represents the state. She revealed that there are presently few options other than punishment for those convicted of a crime.
Hodge highlighted the present size of the criminal justice system, the number of persons who are currently incarcerated and the budget for policing when compared to other countries. A part of the legacy of slavery in America, Hodge said that there is a direct historical connection to the criminal justice system and policing, which began as slave patrols.
Hodge provided additional resources and advocacy tools for participants, including End the Exception, which highlights that slavery is abolished except as punishment for crime.
“Those things don’t go away. And if we understand that history, then it actually isn’t surprising when we see the racial disparities that exist,” Hodge said.
“The system is set up intentionally to be adversarial and it leaves out the survivor or the victim to really have a voice or a role,” Heath said. “Healing being the goal is what I saw wasn’t possible through my friend.”
After making the case for a system that they argue is ill-equipped to bring justice, Hodge advocated for an end to the death penalty and for humane treatment of prisoners, who are dehumanized through isolation, deprivation of community and loss of their name in exchange for an inmate number. All are reflective of the country’s history of slavery, she said.
Hodge offered ways to advocate as an expression of faith and said, “It should be a part of our ministry to challenge these systems that are making it harder for those who are marginalized and oppressed.”
“And what’s being done, whether its executions or the system as a whole, is being done in our name. This system was continuing that in my name, supposedly on my half. That’s where that advocacy piece came,” Heath added.
Heath and Hodge invited participants to advocate by “walking with and beside” those in the prison system, to reform it by training “system actors” and electing persons who are more aligned with the community’s values, and to consider transforming it by “imagining beyond what exists.”
Hodge believes that this will require a new narrative when talking about violence and harm. What is needed is an elevated and resourced community-based response that centers the drivers rather than more police force and stiffer penalties, she said.
Hodge and Heath are locked in solidarity with the mass incarcerated. The webinar concluded with Q&A and an invitation to join them as they equip others who feel compelled to move beyond the criminal legal system and build what is needed.
A recording of the webinar is available here.
Director of The Raceless Gospel Initiative, associate editor, and host of the Good Faith Media podcast “The Raceless Gospel.”