Media

The sin of mass incarceration

April 13, 2015 | Indianapolis Star | Link to Article

On the surface, remarkable diversity was on display last Thursday evening in the pulpit of the Far-Eastside Citadel of Faith Church of God in Christ. A young African-American woman introduced a balding white man, who yielded the microphone to a Latina college student. The polished baritones of preachers alternated with the cries of an emotional grandmother.

But the eclectic group, and the 200-plus people who cheered them on for two hours, spoke with one voice on the subject of the proposed $1.75 billion criminal justice facility for Indianapolis, a proposal scheduled to be put to a City-County Council committee vote Tuesday night.

The plan, they said, is a sin.

The criminal justice center has been the topic of much local debate already, most of it centered on the huge price tag. But Thursday night's Summit on the Sin of Mass Incarceration focused instead on bankruptcy of the moral kind.

Framed by a display demanding "Jobs, Not Jails," speakers told personal stories of families and neighborhoods shattered by years when good jobs and treatment were nowhere to be found, but arrests and imprisonment were ever-present.

Others highlighted the statistics that mock the concept of equal justice for all. One of every 10 kids in Indiana has a parent who is incarcerated, one of the nation's highest rates and a number reflecting a generation's unprecedented 500 percent spike in the number of persons incarcerated. Most of those held in our jails are there for non-violent offenses, and many are mentally ill. The disproportionate jailing of persons of color is a particular tragedy. For example, African-Americans are three times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than whites, even though research repeatedly shows that drug use is equal across racial classifications — and whites are actually more likely to be selling drugs. "When we incarcerate this massive amount of young black men, we do more than take fathers and sons out of families, we destroy entire communities," says Pastor Denell Howard of Hovey Street Church of Christ.

The message of the summit sponsored by the Indianapolis Congregation Action Networkk, IndyCAN, was echoed in a letter from local Christian and Jewish faith leaders sent last week to every City-County Council member. "To be sure, outdated jail facilities need your and our city's attention," wrote a group that included Roman Catholic Archbishop Joseph Tobin and Methodist Bishop Michael Coyne. "But you should also be asking why our jails are over-used and misused in the first place."

The campaign includes thousands of emails sent to Councilors last week, and 12,000 local voters that IndyCAN reports have personally pledged to support jobs and treatment as alternatives to increased incarceration. They want any new justice center plans to avoid adding more bed space and to invest heavily in jobs, treatment, and diversion programs.

Republican Councilor Ben Hunter and Democratic Councilor Vop Osili attended last week's summit. After listening to the speakers, both pledged to oppose the criminal justice center unless plans are modified to put greater focus on jobs and treatment. Soon, we will find out if their fellow councilors have been listening, too.