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Baptist Minister/Judge Says Incarceration a Moral Issue

Baptists should condemn the idea that incarceration cures crime, advocate just alternatives to prison and work to reclaim and restore persons leaving the penal system, says an appellate judge and ordained Baptist minister.

“If I told you that I could cure cancer or AIDS, you would pay attention,” Wendell Griffen, the third-most senior member of the Arkansas Court of Appeals, said in an e-mail interview with EthicsDaily.com. “If I then said that my cure consists of building more cemeteries and hiring more morticians, you would certainly reject my suggested cure.”

But Griffen said that is the very reasoning behind America’s approach to curing the problem of crime. “Building more jails and prisons and hiring more jailers and prison guards is to solving crime as building cemeteries and hiring morticians is to curing cancer or AIDS,” he said.

“That does not mean that we don’t need cemeteries and morticians, prisons and jails and jailers and guards,” he said. “However, we should never believe that we are stopping crime or eliminating life-threatening diseases by those approaches.”

Griffen, a former pastor who serves as coordinator of ministries at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., challenged Baptists to engage the criminal-justice system in a workshop at the recent New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta. He said Baptists should reject “the wicked notion” that the tendency to commit crimes is linked to race and oppose all forms of racial profiling.

He also urged Baptists to “elevate the public policy conversation about criminal justice” by asking questions like why so many people are turning to illegal drugs to find fulfillment and what churches and government are doing to assist families and improve early childhood healthcare and education so people are less susceptible to temptations of drugs, alcohol, materialism and violence.

Being a judge and a prophetic Baptist minister has at times been a balancing act for Griffen. Last year an ethics panel dismissed charges that he violated judicial rules by speaking out on political issues including criticizing the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and opposing the war in Iraq.

One of his discipline charges involved remarks critical of President Bush’s nomination of John Roberts as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court that he made in a speech in 2005 at a meeting of the National Baptist Convention, USA, the largest African-American denomination in the United States, in which Griffen serves as parliamentarian. The panel eventually determined that Griffen’s public comments were protected speech under the First Amendment.

Griffen said his roles as judge and minister are not as different as they might appear on the surface. “Both justice and prophetic ministry demand the capacity to do unpopular principled things, trusting that whatever passing difficulties one may suffer by doing so are required in order to achieve far more lasting purposes,” he said.

He said he balances his life as a minister and a judge by reminding himself that “the challenge and constant duty in each calling is to be humble, honest about my limitations, fair in my decisions and courageous in the face of the temptations and threats posed by desire for popularity at the cost of principled action.”

Born to working-class parents, Griffen grew up on a 40-acre farm in southwest Arkansas where his family raised livestock and vegetables to supplement the family’s food and income. After graduating from the University of Arkansas School of Law, he joined the Little Rock law firm of Wright, Lindsey & Jennings, becoming the first lawyer of color to join a major Arkansas law firm. He practiced business and tort litigation with the law firm. He later became a partner, another first for a person of color in a major Arkansas law firm.

Gov. Bill Clinton appointed Griffen chairman of the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission in 1985, a post he held two years. After returning to his law firm, he was appointed to the court of appeals by Gov. Jim Guy Tucker in 1996.

In his workshop in Atlanta, Griffen said Baptists have not yet challenged racial profiling by law-enforcement officials targeting people in black and brown communities. “Regarding violent crime, Baptists must repent of the sin of selective judgment about who deserves policing, and who should be considered victims,” he said.

He said Baptists should condemn “in the name of our just God that our neighbors have been interrogated, humiliated, accused, denied access to their families, denied access to the evidence on which the government relies to accuse them and tortured after first being profiled by our government.”

Griffen also opposes the privatization of criminal justice. “Criminal justice, like national defense, is public work to be done in the name of public health, safety and prosperity,” he said. “We should not outsource that work to enrich private parties while refusing to see what the vendors do to and with our brothers and sisters who have fallen along life’s road.”

Griffen said Baptists should also demand “that people who administer our criminal justice system be culturally competent and respect the dignity of every person.”

“Certainly, we must protect the world from the violent, vicious and dishonest,” he said. “We should not treat any person, however heinous the conduct may be that he or she is accused of doing, as beneath humanity.”

Griffen said Baptists also should demand “that criminal justice be free of false evidence, wrongful convictions and retribution.”

“Nothing is more unjust than to accuse, convict and punish someone based on contrived, falsified or pernicious grounds,” he said. “We who grieve that Jesus was tried in a prejudiced forum, charged by an overzealous prosecutor and convicted based on falsified proof should be the first to demand transparency and integrity in the criminal justice process at every stage.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.