Barna Group survey results for 2021 are now available.
Criminal justice issues such as policing and sentencing have been hot topics nationally over the last couple of years. Media pundits have taken sharp opposing sides on these issues, but do those sides accurately reflect what Americans really believe? And where do American Christians stand on these issues?
Since 2017, Prison Fellowship® has commissioned the evangelical Christian polling firm Barna Group to conduct biannual surveys focused on criminal justice issues. The survey specifically highlights opinions among practicing Christians. And the 2021 results are now in.
A CULTURE THAT RESTORES: PRISON REFORM
The results of the 2021 survey have incorporated several new topics.
What criminal justice reforms do Americans support the most?
Generally, Americans agree that the top criminal justice reform priorities are in-prison job or educational training programs.
Practicing Christians believe that the top three criminal justice reform issues that must be addressed are:
- Expanding the availability of in-prison programs, such as education, job training, and substance abuse recovery: 29%
- Reducing barriers returning citizens face in accessing employment, affordable housing, and other social service supports: 29%
- Keeping youth under 18 out of adult prisons: 27%
Should sentencing be used to make examples of people who commit certain crimes?
There was a modest decrease in support for making an example of out of people convicted of certain crimes. In 2017, 49% of Americans and 53% of practicing Christians agreed with using excessive sentences to send a message about certain crimes. That dropped to 46% of Americans and 50% of practicing Christians in 2021.
Should parole be used as an incentive for prisoners to demonstrate good behavior?
Americans across the board agree that parole and other flexible release opportunities should be used as an incentive for prisoners to exercise good behavior and complete rehabilitation programs.
- 28% of U.S. adults and 33% of practicing Christians agree strongly.
- 51% of U.S. adults and 50% of practicing Christians agree somewhat.
- 20% of U.S. adults and 18% of practicing Christians disagree.
Should parole or other community supervision be based on a prisoner’s demonstrated rehabilitation effort or on the type of crime they committed?
Subsequently, 25% of Americans strongly believe release decisions should be based on rehabilitative efforts made by prisoners during their sentences, and not on the type of crime committed. This number rises to 35% among practicing Christians.
HOW DO PRACTICING CHRISTIANS FEEL ABOUT REMOVING BARRIERS TO REENTRY?
The Hope to Rebuild
Consistent with the message of Prison Fellowship’s Second Chance® Month campaign, Americans believe that barriers to job training and employment for people with criminal records should be removed. In 2017, 69% of Americans generally and 73% of practicing Christians specifically opposed such restrictions and collateral consequences. With the exponential growth of Second Chance Month due to coalition support and media coverage, 75% of Americans and 78% of practicing Christians now share this view in 2021.
Moreover, both Americans and practicing Christians are opposed to restrictions to public and private housing for people with a criminal record. However, only 54% of Americans and practicing Christians admitted they are willing to live in the same neighborhood as returning citizens.
When asked if more positive language should be used for people with a criminal record—like saying “returning citizen” instead of “ex-felon”—69% of practicing Christians agreed. When the question was framed in a larger context of how God offers second chances to all who sin, that number rose to 82% of practicing Christians.
DO PRACTICING CHRISTIANS BELIEVE POLICING NEEDS REFORM?
To Protect and To Serve
Most of both Americans and practicing Christians believe that police reforms are needed. In fact, only 10% of Americans oppose police reforms of any kind. High on the list of reforms was training officers in de-escalation tactics and how to defuse potentially dangerous situations.
At the same time, 77% of adults believe additional policing in high crime areas is needed to make communities safer. That support rises to 86% among practicing Christians.
Addressing Race Issues
2021 also showed a slight increase in practicing Christians reporting that their church was engaged in raising awareness in race issues. In 2019, 29% of Christians were actively addressing race issues within their church communities, compared to 35% in 2021. While this increase was likely influenced by the highly publicized deaths of Black Americans by police, there was only a 1% uptick in churches discussing criminal justice issues from the pulpit.
The top motivation for such discussion was the Bible’s mandate to care for others including the incarcerated. This was followed closely by the impact of criminal justice on the church community.
WHAT DO PRACTICING CHRISTIANS BELIEVE ABOUT OUR JUSTICE SYSTEM AND WHY?
The View of the American Church
So, what is the American Christian perception on criminal justice issues and reform? The Barna Group survey reveals three vital insights into how practicing Christians respond:
- Practicing Christians are more likely to believe the primary purpose of our justice system is to restore victims, the responsible parties, and the affected community. Christians strongly support opportunities for people with criminal records to make amends with their victims and communities. They also support parole and other release decisions when based on rehabilitation efforts.
- They are also more open to the alternatives to incarceration than the American public at large. In addition, Christian values inspire strong concern for the care of incarcerated people. Christians want humane prison conditions for prisoners.
- Finally, practicing Christians are 8% more likely than the general public to strongly agree that political candidates’ positions in favor of fair sentencing, strong prison programs, and second chances are influential to their vote.
Why is this? Perhaps because Christianity is strongly centered on redemption. Since God has given all of us a second chance (and more) through the death and resurrection of His son Jesus Christ for our sins, shouldn’t we extend the same grace to our neighbors?
Christians can be a significant force in driving redemptive change within the criminal justice system and our culture. The foundation has been laid, but the Church must take action.
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