This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Too many of the ‘least’ in prison

“When was it that we saw you . . . in prison and visited you?” the righteous ones asked Jesus. Jesus responded, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:39-40).


Caring, ministering and praying for those who are in prison is something that many Christians over the years have felt called to do.

However, it is also important to consider who is in prison in this country and why.

The United States has 2.4 million people incarcerated in its criminal justice system.

This number is even more staggering when compared to the global incarcerated population: 25 percent of the world’s prisoners reside in the United States, a country with 5 percent of the world’s population.

Why is this?

Do people in our country commit that many more crimes?

The answer lies in harsh sentencing policies, particularly for drug offenders.

Federal mandatory minimum sentences have resulted in a huge surge in the prison population since 1980.

These guidelines have caused massive spending increases for taxpayers, shameful racial disparities and the destruction of many lives.

The lengthy sentences that the United States imposes result in psychological damage, the loss of jobs and homes, and broken families.

Those in positions of power have been slow to address these and other concerns.

The new Congress has shown more interest in criminal justice reform than in the past, and several steps have been taken in a positive direction.

Legislative initiatives such as the Smarter Sentencing Act, the Redeem Act and the Justice Safety Valve Act all have the potential to put the U.S. criminal justice system on a path toward reform.

However, it remains to be seen if these bills will make it into law. Even if some or all of them do become law, they will not alone solve all of the problems.

Much more work is needed to overcome the problems and inequalities in our criminal justice system, including a shift to a more restorative approach.

The current debacle took decades to create, and it will not be alleviated overnight.

Mennonite Central Committee provides resources and training on restorative justice frameworks and processes. We have developed resources on implementing victim-offender dialogue programs. We also provide training for universities seeking to deal with judicial disciplinary issues and create living environments based on restorative processes.

As Christians, we are called to minister and to embrace “the least of these.”

As Anabaptists, we are called to work for peace.

Both of these things are sorely needed in the U.S. criminal justice system, as evidenced by the absurd levels of incarceration and racial disparities in our country.

We should remember and care for those who are in prison, but we must also consider the systemic changes that need to be made to truly follow Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25.

Joshua Russell is Legislative Assistant and Communications Coordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office.

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