Hispanic Evangelicals Call For Criminal Justice Reform

Like millions of families across America, I have seen the effects of both crime and the criminal justice system up close. My father served time in the juvenile detention system. He was addicted to heroin as a young man, came from a highly dysfunctional family, and was one of 11 children, most of whom have been incarcerated. But he was given a second chance and was able to transform. My father is now my pastor and mentor. He and my mother put four of us through college. He has started drug rehab centers and helped hundreds. He mentors young people coming out of prison. We are Christians and we believe people can change.

I am not naive to the realities of crime and violence. I have also known people close to me who have been harmed by violence. As a young man I lived in a tough neighborhood and was personally a victim of gang violence. Thanks to my family and faith community I survived and flourished. Several years ago, my wife was also a victim of violence on a New York City subway. She, like me, has been loved into flourishing. In addition, in my second year of serving as a pastor a parishioner's grandson was killed in front of our church. As I spoke at the funeral my heart broke as I saw up-close the pain and loss of the family. The family's commitment to seeking a wise and healing response was remarkable. I know firsthand from these experiences that we can do better on criminal justice as a society. Right now, our criminal justice system asks only one question in the aftermath of crime -- how should we punish people who commit a crime? It's an incomplete question.

We should be asking how we can best respond to crime in ways that help communities to be safe, healthy, healed, and whole. We should work to prevent crime before it's too late. We should help crime victims to heal. We should hold people accountable for the harm they have caused, but we should do it in ways that create opportunities for different choices in the future. I know how hard it is to recover when you have been the victim of violence, because that's my story. And I know that we can change the lives of people who have gone astray because that's my father's story.

But the justice system doesn't appropriately address those needs or those complex realities. It has one answer for every need: build more prisons to lock more people up for a wider array of crimes for longer amounts of time. That doesn't heal trauma. It leads us to more prisons and fewer schools. It leads us to entire communities shattered by both violence and the criminal justice system's response to it. It leads us to the death penalty, which can never be reversed even when a mistake is made. It leads us to brand and disenfranchise people for life, many of them people of color, many of them once victims of violence themselves who never got help. Even as people are trying to change their lives, they are permanently labeled as someone who cannot contribute to society. We can and must do better.

There are many of us in the Hispanic Evangelical community who have been affected by this system. A recent poll in California found that Latinos were more likely than any other race to be victimized three times or more in just a five-year period. The same survey found that the majority of crime victims weren't even aware of the services that were available to them. Meanwhile billions of dollars are spent every year on excessive incarceration.

Ultimately, I believe the issue for our faith community is the way we see people. Are they a problem or a promise? When faith leaders see someone like my dad -- a young person in a broken system -- do they see a drug dealer or a potential leader? When lawmakers see someone like me, my wife, and our parishioner do they see another excuse to lock someone up in our name, or an imperative for transformation?

As Hispanic Evangelicals, we must continue to dialog and pray for a criminal justice system that truly meets the needs of everyone impacted by crime and violence. And we should lead the way in advocating for policies that get us there: more funding for victims' services, restorative justice programs, re-enfranchisement for non-violent offenders, opportunities for young people to transform and reintegrate, an end to the death penalty, an end to the system's overreliance on incarceration, and more. The Scriptures calls us to "do justice and love mercy." We can do both. Admittedly, in comparison to many countries around the world the United States has a superior justice system. Still we can do better. My message is for all Hispanic Evangelicals to wake up, recruit allies in the faith community and beyond, and demand an immediate repair to those injustices that remain a part of our justice system. To do otherwise would be morally irresponsible. The Status quo is not an option.