Jefferson County Bishop Urges Voters to "Speak Up!" for Criminal Justice

By Bishop George Whitlock III, Lead Pastor of The Vine Church of Birmingham

From churches to corporations, we are witnessing leadership crises in almost every institution imaginable. In times like this, we need principle-centered leaders whose private decisions and public behavior are guided by a love for all people, rich and poor alike.

As a faith leader, I am called to be a voice for the voiceless, the orphan, and the widow. Proverbs encourages us to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9 NIV). This is needed in our criminal justice system more than ever.

It has become too easy for people to draw a sharp line between victims and offenders. The reality is far more complicated: many offenders are victims of crimes, and many victims have criminal histories. Many people in our community are struggling with addiction and mental illness. Fifteen percent of Jefferson County residents are living below the poverty line and racial disparities are a hallmark of our county’s history and criminal justice system.

There are undeniable links between poverty, crime, addiction, and mental illness. Unless they are all addressed, the revolving door of the criminal justice system will keep turning. This revolving door disproportionately affects people of color in Jefferson County. We must get to the root cause of these offenses, then create sustainable solutions. Creating policies and practices that address root causes require a closeness with the impacted community. It is vital that the district attorney know the community he’s representing and the people he’s prosecuting; they’re often one and the same.

In Jefferson County, the voiceless includes poor people with unpaid parking tickets too afraid of being jailed to go to court, former offenders who are unable to engage with policies directly impacting them because their right to vote has been removed, even the single mother sitting in jail because she does not have money to post bond, or a teenager caught up in a life a crime.

A district attorney cannot provide sustainable solutions to a community he does not know. In the same way I could not effectively pastor my church without being in touch with my congregation, the Jefferson County District Attorney cannot truly advocate for a safer and just community without knowing the people of Jefferson County.

In the Bible, we are instructed to “seek justice,” and that is the mandate all prosecutors must follow. A district attorney concerned only with convicting and caging people is not seeking justice. A just district attorney knows that contact with the criminal justice system, even for a night, can completely derail a person’s life, costing them their job, their home, and even their children. He knows that cash bail and excessive fines and fees creates two systems of justice, one for those who buy their freedom and one for those who cannot.

In the same verse, we’re called to “love mercy.” A just prosecutor knows the value of mercy and that oftentimes policies focused on prevention and diversion serve the community better than those seeking punishment and incarceration.

I was alarmed to learn about the overrepresentation of black people in Jefferson County Jail. I do not believe that our community is disproportionately violent and in need of caging. Justice should never be about race or socioeconomic status. On November 6th, we have the opportunity to elect our next district attorney, one who will value justice over vengeance, and mercy over senseless incarceration. As a community, we should demand that he listen to our voices, that he adopt policies and practices that reflect the humanity of not only the victim, but the accused. This is an opportunity we cannot afford to pass up. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.”

Photo: Michelle Frankfurter/ACLU