People of faith in Kansas should support decarceration

The United States imprisons people at a higher rate than China, Russia, Yemen or Venezuela. (Alex Potemkin/Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. The Rev. Rich Shockey is a chaplain based in Kansas City, Kansas.

You might think that excessive imprisonment of a nation’s people would be something found in countries led by totalitarian regimes with atrocious human rights records. Places like China, Russia, Yemen or Venezuela.

So which of these countries has the highest incarceration rate in the world? None of them.

The United States still leads them all, with an incarceration rate that comes in at a whopping 698 out of every 100,000 people, even though the victimization rate is about the same as other Western countries. Kansas ranks nearly even with the U.S. rate.

For comparison, Russia comes in at 413, Singapore at 201 and China at 118. Yes, the incarceration rate in the U.S. is six times that of China. And while the United States represents about 4.4% of the world’s population, it holds close to 25% of the world’s prisoners.

Even worse, the United States continues to move toward making parts of its criminal justice system more expansive and more punitive.

Americans have become accustomed to unacceptable levels of mass incarceration. This should be outrageous to people of faith.

The answer is adapting a policy that doesn’t tinker around the edges but instead goes right to the heart of the problem: Decarceration would purposefully and significantly lower Kansas’ prison population through increased use of commutations and changes in the sentencing guidelines, and eliminating imprisonment for technical probation violations.

There are a number of reasons why people of faith should support decarceration:

First, the COVID-19 crisis poses an extraordinary health risk to prisoners. COVID-19 has been particularly devastating in jails and prisons across the country. Kansas is no exception. Hundreds of inmates have tested positive to date. There is no reason to put those with minor offenses at risk of death merely because they are poor or indigent, a vulnerable population that even gets special mention in the Christian New Testament.

Second, the incarceration rate disproportionately affects people of color. In Kansas, the incarceration rate for Black people is 1,734 out of every 100,000 people, which is nearly three times the state average on the whole, and a staggering eight times the number of white people. This is a serious racial justice issue, especially considering people of color are no more likely to commit crime.

Third, rehabilitation and restoration are better than retribution. Perhaps the strongest theological argument for decarceration lies in the idea of restorative justice. For Christians in particular, the retributive, capital murder of Jesus on a cross stands in stark contrast with his work of restoration ministry in the world. He taught that the world is healed through rehabilitation, not vengeance hiding behind something called “justice.”

Apart from the religious considerations, restorative approaches to justice have been shown to reduce repeat offending for many crimes. Longer sentences and harsher punishment do not reduce crime or serve as a deterrent, but mental health resources, accessible health care, community development and investment, and other early intervention programs do. 

Fourth, the cash bail system is grossly weighted against the well-being of poor people. Nearly one-third of all people in prison have not yet been convicted of a crime and are waiting on trial, and five out of six of those are there because they are too poor for cash bail. So, the only reason they remain in custody is because of their poverty, not because of their lack of merit.

Finally, Kansas prisons are overcrowded and underfunded. Kansas has such a significant problem that last year Gov. Laura Kelly announced she would send 360 prisoners to a private prison in Arizona, costing Kansans millions of dollars. The company that Kansas is contracting with for this work is CoreCivic, a for-profit, private prison company which has repeatedly come under fire for its ethical abuses.

The benefits of decarceration far outweigh any concerns, either real or perceived.

People of faith affirm the dignity of all people and that every person deserves to be treated fairly. The current pandemic brings us an opportunity to look at our cultural failures regarding incarceration and to take steps to make it right.

We should release those who are at-risk and non-violent offenders who are near the end of their sentences. Funding for corrections should be cut and funds for mental health care and substance abuse treatment should be increased.

Imprisoning people en masse is immoral and expensive and poses a public health risk. Pardons, clemency and the commuting of sentences should be our new standard. Decarceration is the right thing to do.

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