The “Draft Social Statement on Criminal Justice” was released March 15, 2012, on the ELCA’s website. Written by the ELCA Task Force on Criminal Justice, the draft is one step toward a social statement that will be considered, it is hoped, by the 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.
The task force is made up of 17 ELCA members with broad personal experience and professional expertise in criminal justice, Christian ethics, biblical studies and theology. The task force has been convening since late 2008, engaging in study and discernment about the challenges our country faces in its efforts to achieve an effective, balanced and just system for responding to crime.
The task force was formed in response to concerns expressed from within ELCA synods about high incarceration rates in the U.S. These concerns, and increasing societal doubt about the effectiveness of our national incarceration strategies in reducing crime and its harm to individuals, families and communities, compel this church to address the need for change and to ask “What should this church have to say about crime, its harm and justice in this country?”
But the need for change must not be understood simply in the abstract. We are also compelled to ask “What can people of faith, and specifically members of the ELCA, do in ministry to actively participate in creating and guarding a system that is just, balanced and effective in responding to those who do harm and to those harmed?”
In early 2011 the task force released a study document, “Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice.” A rich and diverse collection of responses to the study from congregations, scholars and other external reviewers informed the task force’s next step — writing the draft social statement. Like the study document, the draft social statement is an invitation — meant to encourage conversation and deliberation on criminal justice and what this church should say and do about it. Responses to the draft will inform the task force’s next large piece of work — revising the draft and preparing it for churchwide consideration.
The draft brings a critical eye to the criminal justice system, striving to boldly acknowledge, not minimize or rationalize away, the ways it has fallen short. Racial disparities and other injustices and inequalities permeate every aspect of the system, and we have failed to develop and broadly embrace effective alternatives to incarceration for those who could be sanctioned safely in the community. But the draft affirms the fundamental importance of the criminal justice system and the rightness of its fundamental principles. It also lifts up those who work in the system and those who work for greater fairness and justice.
ELCA members are encouraged to study the draft and respond with comments. Synods across the country will hold hearings on the draft as an additional means to gather feedback. The deadline for responding is Oct. 31, 2012. The responses will be shared with the task force and will inform their work in preparing the proposed social statement for release in early 2013.
The draft on the website is accompanied by resources to aid discussion and deliberation. These include an executive summary for quick reference and a “Q&A” with common questions and answers.