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By Dean Richardson, member of the Desert Southwest Conference Board of Church & Society

With the election fast approaching, it is important to look at our United Methodist Social Principles as a way to measure our hope for leadership. With regard to Prison Reform, we may not hear specific campaign comments, but we can listen for hints of stances. The following excerpts are taken from the Community and Restorative Justice Social Principle paragraphs:

To protect all persons from encroachment upon their personal and property rights, governments have established mechanisms of law enforcement and courts. A wide array of sentencing options serves to express community outrage, incapacitate dangerous offenders, deter crime, and offer opportunities for rehabilitation.

  • We support governmental measures designed to reduce and eliminate crime that are consistent with respect for the basic freedom of persons.

  • We reject all misuse of these mechanisms, including their use for the purpose of revenge or for persecuting or intimidating those whose race, appearance, lifestyle, economic condition, or beliefs differ from those in authority.

  • We reject all careless, callous, or discriminatory enforcement of law that withholds justice from persons with disabilities and all those who do not speak the language of the country in which they are in contact with the law enforcement.

  • We further support measures designed to remove the social conditions that lead to crime, and we encourage continued positive interaction between law enforcement officials and members of the community at large.

  • In the love of Christ, who came to save those who are lost and vulnerable, we urge the creation of a genuinely new system for the care and restoration of victims, offenders, criminal justice officials, and the community as a whole.

  • Restorative justice grows out of biblical authority, which emphasizes a right relationship with God, self, and community. When such relationships are violated or broken through crime, opportunities are created to make things right.

How would you describe the United States and Arizona penal systems when applying these stated principles?

Most criminal justice systems around the world are retributive. These retributive justice systems profess to hold the offender accountable to the state and use punishment as the equalizing tool for accountability.

  • In contrast, restorative justice seeks to hold the offender accountable to the victimized person, and to the disrupted community.

  • Through God’s transforming power, restorative justice seeks to repair the damage, right the wrong, and bring healing to all involved, including the victim, the offender, the families, and the community.

  • The Church is transformed when it responds to the claims of discipleship by becoming an agent of healing and systemic change.

We, as Methodists, have the opportunity and obligation to vote; can we elect officials that reflect our social principles? We need to listen to the candidates, not out of fear, but with acknowledgment of our many blessings. Can we elect leaders who take on the responsibility to innovate, sponsor, and evaluate new forms of justice that will allow the potential in individuals incarcerated to grow? Primary for us is the gospel understanding that all persons, even felons, are important— because they are human beings created by God and loved through and by Jesus Christ and not because they have merited significance.

I urge you to question, discuss, and vote. Only through participation can we reflect what we believe.

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