President Barack Obama, alongside Charles Samuels (R), Bureau of Prisons Director, and Ronald Warlick (L), a correctional officer, tours a cell block at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, on July 16, 2015.
Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images
By Serene Jones
July 23, 2015
IDEAS
Rev. Dr. Serene Jones is President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.

President Barack Obama’s historic visit to a federal detention facility last week focused America’s attention on the brutal realities of our criminal justice system. Yet this broken system is only a symptom of an even more brutal American reality: white supremacy.

Until we accept and address this underlying cause, systemic problems including unfairly long mandatory minimums, racialized police brutality, harsh prison conditions, and unnecessary obstacles upon release, will continue to plague our nation. Like an incessant game of whack-a-mole, addressing one will only cause racism to rear its evil head in another equally pernicious place.

Every one of us needs to look deep into our souls and into our social systems to heal the wounds from our racist culture and fix our criminal justice system. This is slow, hard work—and it’s necessary.

As a Christian minister and president of Union Theological Seminary, I look with great hope to the Christian story as one that, at its heart, is a story of redemption. It’s the promise that even in our brokenness, our sins are forgiven. Why is it then that when it comes to our criminal justice system, we act in punitive ways, never in redemptive ways? Why do we continue to practice retributive justice, when we could move toward restorative justice?

Too often people with a criminal record are never given a second chance after they have paid their debt to society. In many places, returning citizens are unable to register to vote, discriminated against in employment and housing, and given an effective scarlet letter.

We must create a justice system that reflects the God-given dignity of every person and gives everyone a chance to flourish upon return to the larger society—a justice system that looks beyond prison to the active work of redemption in our society. We must eliminate the box on housing and employment forms asking whether someone is a convicted felon. We must ensure quality publicly funded employment and training programs for citizens returning from incarceration. We must eliminate mandatory minimums so that we have a criminal justice system where the punishment fits the crime. And we must ensure that all citizens have the right to vote.

Legislation that accomplishes these goals would be a good start. But ultimately we need not only policy change, but also change of hearts and minds as it relates to the dignity and value of human life. We will never solve the underlying cause of these problems—this generation’s manifestation of racism and bigotry—until we all believe in the equal worth of every human being.

The good news is that our society at large can find redemption, too. In the Christian story, we have a promise from God that we can overcome the viciousness of white supremacy still very much alive in our American democracy.

I applaud Obama for his work on this issue, and I’m hopeful that federal legislation will be passed to create a better criminal justice system. I am also heartened by the growing bi-partisan and cross-religious commitment to this work. But we can’t stop at legislation or we will fail to create the real and necessary change and healing so badly needed in our broken society.

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