Joe has not been convicted of a crime. He’s innocent, in fact, but he’s still in jail. He’s been sitting there for over two months now, waiting to appear before a judge, waiting for the chance to prove his innocence, but his trial date is nowhere in sight, and he doesn’t have the money to post bond.
Joe is in limbo—pretrial limbo—and he isn’t the only one. There are approximately 476,000 pretrial detainees in the United States. While the Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial, there is no definitive time limit set for pretrial detention, and many people waive that right in hopes of getting a better plea bargain. The time an individual spends in detention prior to trial varies by jurisdiction from weeks to months (the median wait from arrest to adjudication for detained felony defendants is 68 days) but many are kept far longer, with some waiting years to have their day in court.
There are several reasons why followers of Christ should care about Joe and everyone else stuck in pretrial limbo.
The first reason: America’s current system of bail violates the “just process” principle of restorative justice. Christians should support restorative justice principles because they provide a framework for fixing the criminal justice system that is based in Scripture. Restorative justice calls for the accused to receive a just process. It is not a just process when two people are accused of committing the same crime, but one stays in jail pending trial, and the other is released for the sole reason that he has bond money, it is not a just process. Similarly, when two people are accused of different crimes (the first with a criminal history facing a more serious, violent charge, and the second with no criminal history facing a lesser charge) and it is the first individual, not the second, who is released on bail because he was able to secure the bond money, it is not a just process.
The second reason: the status quo threatens the “liberty” principle of restorative justice, which in turn can unnecessarily threaten the stability of the family unit. Incarceration impacts relationships and livelihoods. It often breaks up families—traumatically taking a spouse or parent away. It can result in lost employment—impacting a person’s ability provide for his or her dependents. Detaining an individual for any length of time should be justified; i.e., it should be done in the interest of public safety and/or as part of a proportionate punishment for wrongdoing. At the pretrial phase, there should be a compelling reason why we need to keep someone in jail for public safety reasons. Otherwise, alternatives to detention should be considered prior to trial. Justice Fellowship advocates for a proper balance between public safety and preserving the liberty of citizens.
The third reason: the current pretrial process disproportionately burdens the poor of our nation, while simultaneously costing taxpayers a lot of money—nearly $9 billion per year. In Proverbs 22, and throughout the Bible, God warns against taking advantage of the poor because of their situation—in this case, robbing them of their time and liberty prior to any conviction. Followers of the Lord should work to ensure that our justice system is not oppressing the poor.
In summary, since justice is an attribute of God’s character, we should pursue it to glorify Him. God demonstrated His desire for justice to be upheld on earth in His commands to the nation of Israel in Deuteronomy 16:
You shall appoint for yourself judges and officers in all your towns which the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the Lord your God is giving you. Deuteronomy 16:18-20
If a boatload of cash is the only factor in determining whether or not a person can go free, keep a job, and spend time with family while he or she awaits trial, you have an unjust system that disproportionately burdens the poor and does nothing for public safety. Pretrial justice should matter to Christians because justice matters to our Lord.