Equal Justice (#5031, 2008 BOR)

It must be remembered that the verse “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1, NRSV) is preceded by “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (Romans 12:16-17, NRSV). The admonition to “live in harmony” is directed to the authorities who govern as well as those who may be subject.

The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church state (¶ 164B and H): “The church should continually exert a strong ethical influence upon the state, supporting policies and programs deemed to be just and opposing policies and programs that are unjust. . . . In the love of Christ, who came to save those who are lost and vulnerable, we urge the creation of a genuinely new system for the care and restoration of victims, offenders, criminal justice officials, and the community as a whole.”

Deeply rooted racial and economic injustices in most nations’ criminal justice systems form barriers to the realization of this vision. Some of the challenges include:

            •           media’s disproportionate portrayal of poor people and people of color as criminals;

            •           legislation that results in ever-increasing rates of arrests and longer sentencing of the poor and people of color;

            •           racial profiling and arrest quota systems; and

            •           court-appointed legal representation for poor people that is often inferior to that available to those who can afford private representation.

The Police

In a democratic society, the police fill a position of extraordinary trust and power. Usually the decision of whether a citizen is to be taken into custody rests solely with the police. For these reasons, law enforcement officers must be persons who possess good judgment, sound discretion, proper temperament, and are physically and mentally alert.

Unusual care must be exercised in the selection of those persons to serve as police officers. We recommend psychological testing prior to employment of police officers and periodically thereafter. During the period of training and continually thereafter, police must be instilled with the knowledge that the rights of many will never be secured if the government, through its police powers, is permitted to prefer some of its citizens over others. The practice of citizen preference in the enforcement of our criminal laws must not be tolerated. Our laws must be fairly enforced and impartially administered. No one is immune from the requirements of the law because of power, position, or economic station in life. Further, the power of the police must never be used to harass and provoke the young, the poor, the unpopular, and the members of racial and cultural minorities.

Where there is heavy pressure upon police officers by police departments to regularly make a large number of arrests as a demonstration of their initiative and professional performance, we urge that such practice be discontinued.

In a democratic society, however, a large majority of police work encompasses peacekeeping and social services rather than crime control functions. Police routinely use more than 85 percent of their duty time in giving assistance to citizens and making referrals to other governmental agencies. It is important for police to be recognized and promoted for their effectiveness in such roles as diverting youths from disorderly activities, peacefully intervening in domestic quarrels, anticipating disturbances through the channeling of grievances, and the building of good community relationships.

The United Methodist Church recommends that police departments publicly establish standards of police conduct and policies for promotion. To this end, congregations should encourage the police to conduct public hearings among all classes of citizens, giving adequate weight to peacekeeping, life-protecting, and other service roles, as well as the bringing of criminal offenders to justice. The standards must include strict limits on the police use of guns.

We further recommend that police officers live within the jurisdiction in which they are employed.

We make these recommendations not only in concern about the frequent abuses of people by the police, but also because we are concerned for more effective control of crime. We observe that only about one half the victims of serious crime, and a far smaller proportion of witnesses, report to the police. If offenders are to be apprehended and convicted, police and law-abiding citizens must work closely together. Such cooperation can occur only when the police are fair and humane and when they are publicly known to be sensitive and considerate.

The United Methodist Church urges that communities establish adequate salary scales for police officers and develop high standards for recruiting both men and women, and members of all ethnic groups. Recruitment must be followed by adequate training in social relations and dispute settlement as well as in law and the skills of crime detection investigation and the apprehension of offenders. As police officers continue to meet those improved qualifications, we will recognize law enforcement as a profession with status and respect.

Criminal Laws and the Courts

Restorative justice practices should be utilized within the community as a first response to any criminal behavior. Justice can only prevail when there is healing of the victim, repentance of the offender, and when forgiveness and reconciliation are shared throughout the community. Victim-offender mediation, family group conferencing, and various other restorative justice techniques are urged to be considered as an alternative to the criminal courts.

Overwhelmingly, criminal convictions are by guilty pleas, a large proportion of those by plea bargaining. Where the law recognizes and permits plea bargaining, and in those instances where the ends of justice dictate that a renegotiated plea be considered, we recommend it should be permitted and approved only after full disclosure in open court of the terms and conditions of such plea-bargaining agreement. Equal justice requires that all trials and the sentencing of those convicted under our criminal laws must be conducted in the public courtroom.

However, that work should be correspondingly eased by changes in the law, such as the moving of most traffic offenses out of criminal court to administrative procedures, and by relieving the court of great numbers of civil cases through the adoption of genuine no-fault motor-vehicle insurance laws. The courts must also organize their work efficiently, employing modern management procedures. Many improvements could be made by the use of administrative volunteers, including retirees who can furnish professional services to the court at minimal costs.

Other changes needed to obtain equal justice in the courts include:

  1. the repeal of some criminal laws against certain personal conditions or individual misconduct. Examples are criminal prohibitions of vagrancy, personal gambling, public drunkenness, drug use, and prostitution. Together, these charges alone account for more than half of all arrests in some jurisdictions. They result in little social good, but great evil in class discrimination, alienation, and waste of resources needed for other purposes. Some related laws such as those against drunken driving and those limiting and controlling the operation of gambling establishments need to be tightened;
  2. the adoption of systematic new penal codes prescribing penalties proportionate to the predictable damage done by the various kinds of crime, without regard to the race or class of the offender. For example, in the United States, there are discriminatory high penalties for the use of crack cocaine (most often used by blacks) as opposed to powder cocaine (most often used by whites);
  3. the training of judges of juvenile and criminal courts in the use of nonincarcerating community sanctions wherever the offense does not involve persistent violence;
  4. the adoption of systematic new penal codes prescribing a range of penalties without regard to the race or class of the offender, but utilizing nonincarceration community sanctions wherever consistent with community protection;
  5. the provision for court-fixed sentences, rather than mandatory ones, in order to draw upon the skill and the training of qualified judges;
  6. a statement by the sentencing judge of the reason or reasons why he or she is selecting from the range permitted by the law the particular sentence being pronounced;
  7. the development of appropriate jury selection procedures that would ensure the most inclusive representation, including representatives of the socioeconomic class and ethnic group of the defendants and of the crime victims, as well as balance between male and female jurors;
  8. the adoption by all courts of: (a) speedy trial provisions, which the Constitution guarantees; and (b) that degree of personal recognizance and supervision which each defendant’s situation warrants, regardless of race and class identity, in place of the present, inherently discriminatory bail bond, pretrial release process that exists in some courts;
  9. when fines are assessed, they should be scaled to the magnitude of the crime and the ability of the offender to pay. In suitable cases, fines should be made payable in installments;
  10. governmentally regulated programs of compensation for reimbursement of financial loss incurred by innocent victims of crime should be encouraged, with preference being given for programs in which specific offenders provide restitution to their specific victims as an alternative to incarceration; and
  11. changes in state self-defense laws to allow for cases in which persistently battered persons, especially women and children, are driven to violence against their batterers, when they believe with good reason, that another attack is forthcoming.

We recommend that local churches consider setting up court monitoring panels to observe court operations and proceedings. Such panels may well adopt a role of friends of the court or of advocacy on behalf of accused persons and/or on behalf of crime victims. They may adopt other appropriate procedures in the interest of restorative justice, including close scrutiny of plea bargaining and/or evidence of unequal imposition of sentences.

We call upon the General Board of Global Ministries, through the Restorative Justice Ministries Program, to give leadership and training to congregations to participate in these actions, and to create and sustain new ministries of justice to help eliminate racism and classism in the criminal justice system. We call upon the General Board of Church and Society to advocate for legislation which will eliminate racism and classism in the criminal justice system by:

promoting equity in courts by legal representation of equal quality, regardless of financial ability;

reassessing incarceration guidelines and reducing incarceration of persons guilty of nonviolent crimes; 

creating laws prohibiting discrimination against ex-offenders; 

reinstating voting rights for ex-offenders; and

eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.

ADOPTED 1980
AMENDED AND READOPTED 2000
AMENDED AND READOPTED 2008
Resolution #248, 2004 Book of Resolutions
Resolution #233, 2000 Book of Resolutions

See Social Principles, ¶ 164 H.