These past weeks in the USA we are witnessing grave injustices committed legally (and illegally), exposing the fallacy that legal = just. Presidential pardons of soldiers and US Government contractors guilty of war crimes, billions of dollars in benefits for the rich and powerful tucked away in the 5,000 + page Congressional Relief Bill, and Federal death row executions grieve me deeply, demonstrating the ongoing relevancy of the words of OT prophets:
“Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; For truth has stumbled in the street, and uprightness cannot enter. Yes, truth is lacking… Now the Lord saw, and it was displeasing in his sight that there was no justice” (Isaiah 59:14-15).
In the 26 years I’ve visited inmates as a jail chaplain, I’ve seen grave injustices committed by our legal system against individuals and families that are technically legal. Prosecutors routinely file charges that are higher than what evidence warrants, with intimidating threats that additional charges might be forthcoming. Once someone has a criminal record, “points” are added to a defendant’s “score,” upping the minimum amount of time in jail or prison people can expect to serve if found guilty. An example from this week involves a man I’ve befriended and pastored for 25 years, who is currently facing 240 months in prison for 4-5 “controlled buys”—sting operations where he was caught selling small amounts heroin. This excessive amount of time is due to his points, based on the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) of 1981, Washington State’s version of sentencing guidelines that vary from state to state— “reforms” that underlie mass incarceration of indigent people like the world has never seen.
Bail is calculated and set based on current charges and people’s points; and it can get really high (and sometimes it needs to be). While defendants are usually legally eligible to post bail or seek a reduction in bail before trying to bail out, only people with financial resources can actually bail out and leave custody, fighting their case as “innocent until proven guilty.” Those who fight charges while incarcerated are clearly at a disadvantage—losing their employment, bringing hardship to their families, and looking guilty during court appearances in their jail-issue clothing. The presumption of innocence, fighting charges from outside the jail, and effective legal defense is largely a privilege of the rich.
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Those unable to post bail usually cannot afford a private defense attorney, meaning they must qualify for a court-appointed public defender. While there are many excellent public defenders, most have heavy caseloads, lacking time and finances to represent a defendant as effectively as a high-powered (and expensive) private attorney, especially in a trial. Being found guilty by a jury means judges are required to sentence the convicted within a required minimum-maximum range— which is usually much higher than the sentences offered by prosecutors in plea agreements. This puts pressure on poorer defendants and people of color to plead guilty, even to crimes they haven’t committed, rather than go to trial. The prospect of standing trial before a possibly mostly-white jury, insecurity over a public defender’s capacity to defend them, and inability to afford a private trial attorney cause many to agree to lengthy prison sentences people with money can usually avoid. In this way millions of men and women from the poorest social classes in America have been legally sentenced to excessive and unjust time in prison, often with big fines and years of probation included.
There’s so much more that can be said about the grave injustices rampant in US legal systems, which are compounded for anyone held in immigration detention, where public defenders are not provided. Re-entry presents near impossible challenges, as ex-prisoners face the stigma of labels such as “felon,” “ex-con,” crippling debt to pay back child-support, restitution and other fines– with driver’s licenses often suspended until payments are made.
That President Donald Trump can legally act above the rule of law that ordinary citizens are beholden to, overturning legal convictions in order to free his friends (who already had minimal sentences due to well-funded, expert defense), exposes the gross inequities present in American society, making a mockery of justice. The pardoning of US Special Forces soldiers guilty of extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the more recent pardon of the four US Government contractors working for Blackwater, who committed war crimes when they killed 14 Iraqi civilians at a traffic stop in 2007, shows the world that US soldiers with friends in high places can get away with abuses of authority and murder. That the founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, is Donald Trump’s Education Secretary’s Betsy DeVos’ brother, is another sign that corruption is rampant in the highest places of US government—a serious undermining of legitimate legal authority and rule of law.
As a follower of Jesus, I believe in power of God’s mercy, grace, and love manifested in actions like pardons, debt forgiveness and enemy love. I am not an advocate for punishment through prison sentences, sanctions, and violence. However, if forgiveness is to mean anything to the forgiven and lead to any significant change, it must include confession, deep repentance and lead to conversion and even reconciliation—and it must be available to all.
Jesus exposed and actively resisted the legal injustice inflicted by the law-enforcers of his day. He broke religious/cultural laws openly and regularly, actively removing sanctions viewed as punishments when he healed the sick, cast out evil spirits, defended the accused and befriended outcasts. He publically reprimanded law-enforcers who deprived the most needy people of healing and inclusion through Sabbath and purity laws. He brought justice to the least, and was persecuted to the point of death by execution.
Jesus undoes penal justice through taking the curse of the law upon himself on the cross, canceling it forever in his death and resurrection. Jesus’s arrest, conviction, and death expose legal human justice, with all of its religious justifications for what it is—unjust and even evil:
“This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).
Today the darkness of legal injustice must be exposed, as equal to and even worse than illegal injustice. We just strive to bring together what is being ripped apart, reforming legal systems so they are equitable and just so as to benefit the poorest and most marginalized of the earth. Deep reformation is needed in our legal system from the highest presidency to county courthouses to reverse the trend towards increasing mass incarceration. A national moratorium on executions is urgent now, especially for those scheduled to die before January 20. Get involved here.
“Remove the evil of your deeds from my sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Is 1:16-17).
As we begin 2021, may we commit to bring together truth and justice like never before, including confession and repentance–the essential ingredients to God’s life-transforming, saving pardon. Only then will personal and social change result.