Biblical Jubilee and mass incarceration in Florida

September 15, 2021

      The United States is the world leader in mass incarceration; there are 2.3 million people in the country’s prisons and jails, a 500% increase in the last 40 years.  The United States represents 5% of the world’s population, yet 20% of the world’s incarcerated people are here, meaning one in five people in prison worldwide are in the U.S.

This increase in people, primarily African Americans and Latinos, being incarcerated is not due to an increase in crime rates, but rather to changes in sentencing law enforcement and policy. One of the primary consequences of mass incarceration is prison overcrowding and an increased fiscal burden on states to accommodate a rapidly expanding penal system, despite mounting evidence that large-scale incarceration is not an effective means of achieving public safety.

How did this increase in the incarcerated population occur?

Beginning in the 1980s, a policy called the “War on Drugs” was initiated that led to thousands of mostly African-American and Latino youth being incarcerated and convicted of drug possession and use even if they had not committed a violent crime compared to Anglo youth charged with the same offense but serving lesser sentences. Black males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites and Latinos are 2.5 times more likely.

In 1980 the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses was 40,900; that number increased to 430,926 in 2019. In large part because many states increased mandatory minimum sentences that keep many juveniles in prison for longer periods. For example, in 1986, people sentenced for federal drug offenses had spent an average of 22 months in prison; by 2004, the average time in prison had increased to 62 months, a threefold increase. At the federal level, persons incarcerated for a drug conviction constitute almost half of the prison population. At the state level, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses has increased nine-fold since 1980, most are not high-level drug traffickers, and most do not have a criminal record for a violent crime.

According to the report “States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2021,” released by the Prison Policy Initiative on Wednesday, September 8, 2021, and analyzing U.S. data since December 31, 2019, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in the United States, and international data collected by World Prison Brief, in 2021 I determine for example that:

“Florida’s state prison and jail incarceration rate is 795 persons per 100,000 inhabitants, (including prisons, jails, immigration detention and juvenile justice facilities), a higher percentage of the population than many European democracies.”

The Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) is the third largest state prison system in the country, with a budget of $2.76 billion, approximately 80,000 inmates incarcerated and nearly 145,000 individuals on parole. In fact, Florida’s incarceration rate is higher than that of the 13 founding countries of NATO and the 11 countries of the European community. Since 1996, the number of people serving 10 or more years in prison has tripled.

Has mass incarceration improved public safety?

According to Emily Widra and Tianna Herring, senior research leaders of the Prison Policy Initiative, mass incarceration did not align with crime rates:

“For four decades, the United States has embarked on a globally unprecedented experiment to make every part of its criminal justice system more expansive and more punitive. As a result, incarceration has become the nation’s default response to crime, with, for example, 70 percent of convictions resulting in confinement – far more than other developed nations with comparable crime rates.”

“Our new analysis of incarceration rates and crime rates around the world reveals that America’s high incarceration rates are not a rational response to high crime rates, but rather a politically expedient response to public fears and perceptions of crime and violence.”

There are several factors that explain why mass incarceration has a modest impact on crime:

  • First, incarceration is particularly ineffective in reducing certain types of crime, for example juvenile crimes, many of which are committed in groups, and drug offenses. When people are locked up for these crimes, they are easily replaced on the streets by others seeking economic income or struggling with addiction.
  • Second, people tend to “age out” of delinquency. Research shows that crime peaks in the mid to late teens and begins to decline when individuals are in their early 20s. Thereafter, crime declines sharply when adults reach their 30s and 40s.

As recidivism rates decline markedly with age, lengthy prison sentences, unless specifically targeted at extremely dangerous and violent offenders, are an ineffective approach to preventing addiction and juvenile delinquency. Consequently, excessive sentencing practices in the United States are largely counterproductive and extremely costly.

The only countries that come close to the incarceration and “violent crime” rates of any of the 50 U.S. states are El Salvador, Panama, Peru and Turkey. No other country incarcerates as many people, including countries with similar “violent crime” rates.

As Christians what are we called to do?

“And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family.” (Leviticus 25:10. NKJV).

The Jubilee in Leviticus 25 is foreseen to take place every “Sabbath of Sabbath” or every 49/50 years. The practice announced is: -release of the debts of each member of the community (25.35-42) -return of appropriated or confiscated lands to their original owners (25.13, 25-28) -freedom for those who had become slaves (25.47-55).

The word Jubilee in Hebrew is the same word for ram’s horn. The ram’s horn was blown at the victory and deliverance from the battle of Jericho. The implications here are clear, the ram’s horn announces, “Peace and deliverance has come”. Thus, the biblical Jubilee is an announcement of God’s peace and deliverance for God’s people. So God’s peace implies prison justice in our society.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach good news to the poor;

“He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives  And recovering of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19. NKJV).

This passage from Luke where Jesus quotes Isaiah chapter 61 especially shows us the joyful character of Jesus’ ministry as the one who brings “liberation” to prisoners and captives.

If we adopt a biblical Jubilee approach we will engage in a direct and practical way in criminal justice reform, we can reduce crime, improve public safety and make more responsible use of Florida’s fiscal resources.

In particular, we need to start by advocating for:

  • Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and reducing excessively long sentences; for example, those that impose a maximum of 20 years in prison for non-violent drug offenses.
  • Increase resources to community-based substance abuse prevention and treatment.
  • Invest in interventions that promote solid youth development and respond to delinquency in age-appropriate ways and with job training opportunities.
  • Examine and reform policies and practices, conscious or not, that contribute to racial inequality at every stage of the justice system.
  • Invest in and provide more access to education for individuals serving sentences.
  • Remove barriers that make it difficult for people with criminal records to turn their lives around.
  • Restore voting rights to people who have already served their sentences.

Jesus alluded that his ministry was the beginning of a new jubilee (Luke 4:16-21). He came to “proclaim good news to the poor,” to “proclaim liberty to the captives,” and to “set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). Jesus realized the vision of the Jubilee by inaugurating a radically new and peaceful kingdom in the world. The evangelical church must bear witness to a greater and perpetual jubilee inaugurated by Jesus, and in its public advocacy it will witness to lawmakers for the incarcerated and their families who long for justice and restoration. It is evident that the system of mass incarceration in Florida needs a jubilee.

Mission Talk Editorial Team