Prayers raised for criminal justice reform

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Faith communities across the nation and as far away as Kenya and Iraq prayed this week for reform of U.S. criminal justice. Nearly 90 faith communities in 24 states, the nation’s capital, Puerto Rico, Kenya and a U.S. service member in Iraq reported to the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) that they participated in the National Day of Prayer for Criminal Justice Reform, Feb. 7.

Of the 88 churches reporting, 60 were United Methodist, according to Bill Mefford, GBCS director of Civil & Human Rights, who helped coordinate the effort. He said 118 persons on Facebook said they took part as well.

Of the 88 churches reporting, 60 were United Methodist.

Besides United Methodist, other faith communities reporting included African Methodist Episcopal, Baptist, Catholic, Church of God in Christ, Congregational, Episcopal, Lutheran, Mennonite, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Unitarian, United Church of Christ and non-denominational. There were also several organizations whose ministry is criminal-justice-related.

“We had a good mix,” Mefford said. He described the stories related to the prayer services as compelling.

Prayers and actions

A woman at Bonners Ferry (Idaho) United Methodist Church has committed to continue to pray to keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system, according to Judy Dirks, who coordinated the event. Dirks reported that the woman said she will try to work with her county’s Youth Accountability Board. The board works to keep youths out of the system, accountable for their crimes, and tries to bring about reconciliation with the victims of those crimes.

This flowed into a discussion of the unfairness of sentencing.

At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., near Washington, D.C., participants at United College Ministries prayed for reform. They then held a discussion in which the participants discovered that many of them have personal ties to the criminal justice system, such as relatives who had been seriously affected.

“This flowed into a discussion of the unfairness of sentencing, particularly related to the disparity between crack and powder cocaine,” reported Denise May, who coordinated that event.

A United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City prayed and acted. Members of the prayer event asked the congregation to take action on Oklahoma legislation to reform the criminal justice system. They also encouraged volunteering with various criminal-justice-system-related ministries.

Mefford said a church in San Jose, Calif., took up a collection to sponsor work in local prisons and collected Bibles for the incarcerated.

Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Philadelphia prayed for criminal justice reform in the midst of the second largest snowfall in the city’s history, nearly 30 inches.

Missional action

“Just as Jesus’ times of prayer were consistently followed with caring for the most vulnerable in his society,” Mefford said, “so we too as his followers know that our day in prayer for criminal justice reform will launch us into missional action to create a genuinely new system.”

We too as [Jesus’] followers know that our day in prayer for criminal justice reform will launch us into missional action.

Mefford emphasized that faith communities throughout the United States and even across the world, came together because they know the U.S. criminal justice system is broken. “What we need is a system where victims are cared for, public safety is maintained, and emphasis is taken off of retribution against the accused and is focused instead on restoration back into society and reconciliation with those who have been hurt,” he said.

3 prayers

Prior to the National Day of Prayer, Mefford had urged people to pray for three things:

  • A fair criminal justice system based on restorative principles that do not sentence people to unjustly long sentences or target certain racial groups, so that the families of the incarcerated can be strengthened and local communities safely restored.
  • Empowerment of churches to serve those directly affected by the criminal justice system by caring for victims of crime, providing necessary programs for ex-offenders seeking to reenter society, supporting families affected by crime, and advocating for reform.
  • The moral leadership and accountability of elected leaders to support legislation that reflects the values of restorative justice and will care for victims of crime, eliminate unjust and unsafe treatment, and provide for in-prison, reentry and prevention programs to avert future crimes.
  • Mefford said the next step in the awareness campaign is a week of “Faith in Action to Support Our Youths.” The week will begin March 29. He said preliminary plans are for conference calls, direct call ins, and possibly meetings with members of Congress in their districts.

    Criminal justice reform legislation

    Letter to the Editor