Juvenile Justice and Jesus

We Must Do Better

Jesus cared passionately about prisoners. Throw in what he said about little ones and millstones, and we’d better care about juvenile offenders. Stay tuned to BreakPoint.

Listen Now | Download

Eric Metaxas

Three years ago, Michael McIntosh went to visit his son, a juvenile offender at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility near Jackson, Mississippi. When he arrived he was told that his son, Mike, wasn’t there.

Since Mike hadn’t been released from custody, something was very wrong. It took six weeks and a tip from a prison nurse to find Mike, who was in a hospital in Greenwood several hours from Jackson. It’s as if prison officials were trying to hide Mike.

And for good reason: Mike “could barely move, let alone sit up.” He couldn’t see or talk; he had a “baseball-size knot on the back of his head;” and he was covered in cuts, bruises and stab wounds.

As a result of his injuries, Mike sustained brain damage that left his cognitive abilities resembling that of a two-year-old. Mike suffered these injuries as the result of a “youth melee” at the facility, and “no one bothered to tell his father.”

Again, for good reason: because according to a Department of Justice report, “A female guard had ‘endorsed the disturbance by allowing inmates into an authorized cell to fight.’ ” What’s more, “The guard’s involvement wasn’t uncommon. Investigations showed that guards frequently instigated or incited youth-on-youth violence. Often, they were the perpetrators.”

Eventually, the state entered into an agreement with Justice to reform conditions at Walnut Grove. In approving the settlement, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves cited a pattern of “deliberate indifference” to what he characterized as “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions.”

A year after this settlement, Mississippi faces another lawsuit over prison conditions: in May, the ACLU sued the state on behalf of residents at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility. The ACLU alleges that conditions at the facility have “cost many prisoners their health, and their limbs, their eyesight, and even their lives.”

The complaint alleges that “solitary confinement zones house dozens of seriously mentally ill prisoners who are locked down in filthy cells for days, weeks, or even years at a time.” The plaintiffs say that “rapes, stabbings, beatings, and … acts of violence are rampant.”

It all sounds depressingly familiar. Let’s be clear: Mississippi is by no means unique. If, as Dostoevsky wrote, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” then we are a nation of barbarians.

We lock up a far greater percentage of our people than any other nation. And once they’re behind bars, our treatment of them ranges from, at best, benign neglect to violations of human dignity that, as Justice Anthony Kennedy has written, have “no place in civilized society.”

These violations persist because the vast majority of Americans practice their own brand of “deliberate indifference” when it comes to the treatment of prisoners.Newsletter_Gen_180x180_B

But we don’t have that option. Jesus made it clear that deliberate indifference to their plight puts our souls at risk. In addition, if we remain silent in the face of these offenses against human dignity, then we will deserve it when people tune us out when we talk about matters like religious freedom and marriage. We will be just another special interest in a nation full of them.

So where do we start? Well, please visit JusticeFellowship.org. Chuck Colson founded Justice Fellowship in 1983 to bring biblical principles to bear on our criminal justice system. Learn about Justice Fellowship’s work, sign up for JF’s email newsletter, and find out how you can contribute to making ours a society worthy of being called “civilized.”

Further Reading and Information

BP-Takeaction_70813Juvenile Justice and Jesus: We Must Do Better - Next Steps

Visit Justice Fellowship at JusticeFellowship.orgSign-up for Justice Fellowship e-alerts about criminal justice legislation in your state and at the federal level. Advocating for justice has never been easier:  these e-alerts will provide links to model emails you can send directly to your legislators with just a few clicks.

And visit Youth for Christ’s Juvenile Justice Ministry to find resources about starting a ministry in a juvenile justice facility near you.


Justice Fellowship

Youth for Christ Juvenile Justice Ministry


Investigation, Lawsuit Expose Barbaric Conditions at For-Profit Youth Prison in Mississippi
Booth Gunter | Southern Poverty Law Center | May 3, 2012

Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth, 2012
Allen Beck, David Cantor, John Hartge, Tim Smith | Bureau of Justice Statistics | June 6, 2013

Not So Civilized
Eric Metaxas | BreakPoint.org |August 20, 2012

Justice That Restores
Eric Metaxas | BreakPoint.org |August 23, 2012


Biblical jurisprudence?

There is much to agree with in your comment, but there is one glaring error that screams at me to point out. It may be true that the scriptural formula for dealing with crime would make good jurisprudence. The problem is, it is not nor has it ever been the way crime has been dealt with in this country, not does it seem to be what you are recommending in your comment.

The Old Testament (which deals with Law; the New Testament being mostly about Grace, like the Grace Mr. Metaxas wants to offer to JDs) does not specify imprisonment for any offense. The relatively minor, non-violent offenses were basically punished with fines. If you rob your neighbor, you give back the value of what you took plus a percentage. More serious offenses (like violations of the Ten Commandments) got the death penalty. There was nothing in between. Nothing was punished with prison time. Jesus and the apostles were jailed in accordance with Roman law, not Jewish law. To the extent that the Sanhedrin used jails, they were violating the Old Testament.

If you don't think the Old Testament system as I have described is applicable in the US today, that's fine. I tend to agree. But then you can't turn around and claim that what you recommend is sound Biblical jurisprudence. It just isn't. If you think my description of Old Testament law is inaccurate, you are certainly free to give scripture references proving it.
I find it ironic that the subject of the article is about reforming prisons and not prisoners.
Thanks to a culture that has largely abandoned even the most rudimentary concepts of right and wrong we are rapidly descending into anarchy.
Violations of law, and morality is alarmingingly high. Uncivilized behavior is epidemic.
Our false sense of compassion and desire to be merciful has the opposite of the intended effect on those who would prey on their fellow man.

People who have no respect for the law must be taught to fear it. Those who cannot be taught to fear the law need to be permanantly seperated from society. Society must protect itself from preditors, it has every right to do so.

No one bears the guilt of the wrongdoer except he who violated the law. Every moral choice is an exercise of free will. Mercy and compassion are legitimate entitlements after the criminal has paid his debt to society and even then only if the criminal has foresworn any future criminal behavior.

The Biblical standards of right, wrong, and the punishments for transgression are not just sound theology they are sound jurisprudence.

When the guilty are punished those who may be tempted to copy the crime are given a moments pause and perhaps are even turned away from lawlessness. Supposed scientific studies to the contrary are absurd.

The key is the degree of punishment necesary to cause behavioral change. The degree of harshness must be based on the individual and the means available to change the heart of the criminal.

The Gospel is by far the preferred means of life-changing conversion but many states now constrain the preaching of the Gospel because of the preposterous claim of seperation of church and state.

Our punitive public policy must emmulate that of God Himself. Each man is responsible for his own actions. Failure to accept the truth and obey the law earns punishment. Some punishment is eternally agonizing.

It cetainly more "humane" in the long run to break a man from criminality than it is to pass him back into society only to return to a life of crime or anti-social behavior. It is inhumane to allow innocent civilians to once again be preyed upon by criminals who were returned to society unchanged.