SJC

How do you seek justice in your life? The Social Justice Coalition (SJC) works to “…do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God,” Micah 6:8.

Join us as we respond to injustice through discussion, prayer, education, advocacy and church/community events. For more information, email the SJC and join our Facebook group.

7 Day Criminal Justice Reform Challenge

Micah 6:8
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Thank you for committing to spending a few minutes today as the first day in the week of the 7 Day District Attorney Challenge. Each day the DA Challenge presents scripture to hinge our work as citizens to our faithful calling to live into our Church’s mission, “to boldly embody God’s love and compassion” in our community.

Today, the prophet Micah calls us “to do justice.” Start by watching the linked videos to understand what an elected District Attorney does and the power they wield. We can do justice and boldly embody God’s love and compassion to reach beyond Andover to Lawrence and to all of Essex County.

The District Attorney is the most powerful player in Essex County justice. The DA administers justice through the power and discretion of the prosecutors to:

  • Decide what crimes to charge, if any
  • Decide who will be detained before trial
  • Control plea deals offered (~95% of convictions in Essex County are plea deals)
  • Determine sentencing recommendations
  • Oversee police accountability
  • Care for victims of crime.

In 2018, an average of 19 residents per 10,000 were serving sentences in Essex County, 35% greater than the statewide county rate of 14. The Essex County rate was three times that of neighboring Middlesex County. In 2015, Essex County had more state prison admissions as well as more county jail admissions than any other county in the state (Vera Institute).

Do these numbers reflect Micah’s direction for us? Perhaps there is a fairer and more effective system of justice which could save taxpayer money and raise the standards of humane justice. The upcoming days in this challenge highlight the need for transformation in our court system and will investigate the possibilities for safer communities for everyone.

Psalm 69:33
For the Lord hears the needy and does not despise his own people who are prisoners.

Your vote in the Essex County DA race is crucial to achieving an effective and equitable justice system. The last time the DA primary race was contested, fewer than 100,000 votes were cast.

Almost 10% of those voters left the DA choice blank. Voting stats tell us we need to learn more about the DA and why we need to care. Uncontested races lack public dialogue which can examine current policies and practices of the DA’s Office.

According to The Appeal.org, “justices in the state’s highest court are weighing whether it is unconstitutional to sentence people convicted of murder and aged 18 to 20 to life without parole.”  Massachusetts could loosen life without parole restrictions for young people

Hebrews 13:3
Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body.

Essex County Community Foundation’s “Impact Essex County” shows that Essex County has one of the highest rates for racial disparity in juvenile justice in the Commonwealth. In addition to the serious racial disparities, Essex County also has the highest rate of juvenile detention in the state. From the Sentencing Project July 15, 2021 Black Disparities in Youth Incarceration data shows us that in Massachusetts, seven times as many black people (anecdotally darker skinned LatinX people are often classified as Black including Dominicans) are incarcerated for every white person incarcerated (per 100,000).

  • Definition of economic racial gender disparity (1:30 min)
  • District attorneys need to take ownership of their institutions’ roles in perpetuating systems of oppression. One example of striving for accountability is Duke Law School’s Plea Tracker Project, an unprecedented look at how prosecutors use their discretion and a rare example of prosecutors putting a check on their own practices.
  • Why prosecutors must shine a light on plea agreements Boston Globe Opinion 10/18/2021
  • The Unfair Toll of Tough-on-Crime Pretrial Detention: Prosecutors hold an imbalance of power, outweighing the power of the accused and their defense. A prosecutors’ leverage lies in their ability to ask for bail or not ask for bail, file for a dangerousness hearing or not, charge a crime with a mandatory minimum sentence or one without, charge a sentencing enhancement or not. In regards to cash bail, if a DA asks for bail to be set at an amount higher than the defendant can afford, then the defendant, who is innocent until proven guilty, will sit in jail until the date of the trial. This waiting period could well be a longer time than the sentence for the crime charged. The toll of unaffordable cash bail imposes high costs on the detainees, their families, their communities, and the larger public. In the Massachusetts Profile PrisonPolicy.org,  68% of jail inmates are held pretrial, unconvicted. To explore how a DA can implement transformational leadership, read After cash bail: A framework for reimagining pretrial justice. Recent state-wide changes to the law were aimed to prevent pre trial imprisonment based on poverty. These changes have made it somewhat more difficult for the prosecutors to seek a high cash bail. In response to these changes, the prosecutors’ request for a 58A Dangerousness Hearing, if successful, eliminates the possibility of bail. The “58A” is a court ordered detention “for a felony offense that has as an element of the offense the use, attempted use or threatened use of physical force against the person of another or any other felony that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person of another may result…”  Essex County outranks other counties in the Commonwealth for the number of 58A requests made by the prosecutors. Two cities within Essex County, Lawrence and Lynn, have the highest rate of 58a dangerousness pretrial detentions in the state. As Defense Attorney Stephen Van Dyke describes in the MassLive.com article, A rise in dangerousness hearings, which can hold a defendant 180 days before trial, could limit presumption of innocence (11/24/2019), there is an erosion of the  presumption of innocence when a person is locked up after a pretrial dangerousness hearing because the punishment comes before the trial.  

Psalm 79:11 ESV
Let the groans of the prisoners come before you; according to your great power.

Is our current system the only way to promote safety in our communities or is there a better way? Consider this TedTalk How to fix two of the most broken systems in the US (16:17) 2021.

A better, more faithful and human way to assess the justice system’s impact on a community could be to measure how people are diverted out of the criminal justice system and into the services they need. We do not need to continue measuring success as wins or losses, but instead, by communal and individual healing.

We need to help people find stability by treating underlying issues like: substance abuse, mental illness, poverty, and trauma. In doing so, we reduce the likelihood of individuals reoffending. As the leader of a District Attorney’s office, a DA has the ability to make these changes happen.

In FY 2020, the average annual cost per inmate in Massachusetts was $91,643, which is approximately $200 million a year (MA Department Of Corrections). Massachusetts spends roughly $50 million a year to confine youth for low-level offenses which would be suitable for diversion. A juvenile detention bed costs approximately $82,000 per year (MA Department of Youth Services). Only 3% are serious or chronic offenders. Six leading diversion programs cost-benefit analysis found that every $1 spent on diversion produced savings of $10.60 to $25.60 (Citizens for Juvenile Justice). Imagine the stability we could create in individuals’ lives by preemptively addressing the root causes underlying contact with the criminal justice system, as well as by disrupting the revolving door of our prisons.

Matthew 25:35-40
…I was in prison and you came to me….as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.

How does compassion play a role in justice? Jesus calls us from scripture to focus on the plight of prisoners. Public defender and South Church member Kristin Lummus shares with us her understanding of how compassion can be interwoven into both sides of the judicial system in Essex County.

How are victims of crime currently typically treated in Essex County?

How is justice served in Essex County?

How can diversion programs offering services to address addiction, mental illness, and poverty turn the tide of mass incarceration and mass supervision?

Final note: Tune in, pay attention, and show up.

Isaiah 42:7
To open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

Equity, progress and reform are within reach. Transparency and accountability in public office, such as a DA, can provide the public with access to information regarding a DA’s policies and the effects those policies have on a community, and the importance of relying on data to drive policies and measure progress. For a glimpse of what a different model could look like, watch Fair and Just Prosecution’s Prosecutorial Performance Indicators – A New Vision for Success (2:43) 2021

Prosecutors must be leaders in the effort to ensure that convictions are the result of processes that are fair, transparent, and consistent with the pursuit of justice. Respecting privacy and due process rights of those directly involved in a case are important and constitutionally required.The public needs access to information regarding a DA’s policies and the effects those policies have on a community. Prosecutors have an obligation to show the public how decisions are made. As we can see in the juvenile justice system, there are 32+ decision points ranging from initial contact with police to expungement. Comprehensive data is lacking, only accessible to the public at several decision points. When transparency and comprehensive data are lacking, it keeps people from working to provide a more just world – free of racism and classism.

Read more…

“If we are to overcome the pervasive racial and other disparities that infect our criminal legal system, prosecutors must institute checks on their own biases to ensure that we extend mercy fairly, regardless of skin color or socioeconomic factors.” Read more here…

Watch more…

Why smart statistics are the key to fighting crime (12:29) 2013

Luke 4:18
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed

Consider how an estimated 64% of jail inmates and 56% of state prison inmates have mental health problems. People with mental illness are 9 times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized. People with mental illness stay four to eight times longer in jail than someone without a mental illness for the exact same charge. (Mental Health/ The Prison Policy Initiative 5/10/22). A DA’s prosecutors can channel ill people into care and support within the community rather than punitively condemn them to a cycle of incarceration and drain on the community.

Can we reimagine public safety, moving away from a police-first, punitive, carceral system and shifting focus to improving educational and employment opportunities and better social services? How can a District Attorney’s Office use innovation rather than the wrath of punishment as the guiding theme for public safety? Stay tuned for more ways to advocate for a more just, loving and equitable world!

To hear voices of those impacted and voices of hope, watch the following two videos…

A Call to Improve Justice for Massachusetts Children and Youth

Did you know that in Massachusetts the racial disparities in the juvenile justice system are among the worst in the nation? Did you know that a delinquent mistake in childhood could add years to an adult criminal sentence? Did you know that most data on the juvenile justice system 32 decision points are uncollected or hidden from other agencies and the public? Legislators and policy makers are deprived of necessary information to make the juvenile justice system more effective and fairer. Find your legislator at: tinyurl.com/findmyMAlegislator.

SJC Joins Citizens for Juvenile Justice

We are happy to share the good news that on February 28th the Church Council supported the SJC joining the Massachusetts non-profit coalition Citizens for Juvenile Justice (www.cfjj.org). We are now aligned with 60+ member organizations solely dedicated to juvenile justice reform in our state. This connection to a statewide resource and ally stems from the SJC’s focus on the Commonwealth’s juvenile justice system. After learning that Massachusetts is among the worst in the nation for racial disparities in juvenile justice, the SJC has been working for passage of two legislative reform bills. The SJC reached out to UCC churches across the state for support of these reform bills creating a wide

A Call for Essex County Citizens to Vote Sept. 6th

Looking at criminal justice through a wider lens, the SJC is learning about the upcoming turnover in leadership in the Essex County District Attorney’s Office. For the first time in decades, a new DA is up for election and will be elected in the State primary because both candidates are Democrats. The DA is the most powerful player influencing the justice process. The SJC’s non-partisan goal is to have people understand why the DA is important to effective and fair justice for our community.

Over 2000 people in Andover unknowingly qualify for the federal government’s food assistance program SNAP.

On top of that, only 4% of SNAP recipients in Massachusetts are empowered enough to use their additional HIP benefits (free fresh fruits and vegetables from farm stands). Again scripture called for more action. South Church dedicated our Monthly Mission Partnership in November 2021 to Closing the SNAP Gap and fighting food insecurity. The SJC is using those donations in educating and advocating individuals and families about SNAP/HIP on multiple fronts: information booths at food pantries, announcements in community newsletters and church bulletins, workshops for various housing venues, homegrown flyers for use by social workers and other SNAP/HIP advocates (thank you Nora Pelt!). This effort strives to address food insecurity at a systemic level connecting people in need with empowering, long term resources, and to destigmatize food insecurity by caring for our neighbors.

In 2021, in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day...

… a holiday celebrating and honoring Native American peoples and their histories, the Social Justice Coalition shared a visual art installation on the North Lawn of the church. We invited everyone to see all of God’s children and sisters in Christ. Making the invisible visible.

Stop and consider how Native American women and girls are invisible by their murder and abduction for sex trafficking. Native American women and girls are also invisible through the lack of media coverage of their homicides, and any coverage is more likely to use violent language portraying the victim in a negative light. And yet again, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) are invisible in Federal and local databases which fail to count their abductions or deaths: what is not counted does not get addressed.

Please learn more at Not Our Native Daughters and Native Hope.

Noon to 4pm, Saturday, June 18th

The SJC and the Andover Baptist Church are partnering to celebrate Juneteenth. It will be a traditional Juneteenth family celebration, fun for all. Save the date – Noon to 4pm, Saturday, June 18th.

SJC Recommends...

The Social Justice Coalition invites you to look at themes of injustice, racial tensions and white supremacy through the varied lenses of media. With the United States’s shameful history of native american displacement and slavery to the ongoing debate about immigration, the topic of race in America is one that continues to need reflection, conversation, and action to combat the internal messages that we receive through our built-in value systems and false beliefs. Thankfully, there are wonderful resources available – inspiring stories about unforgettable leaders to heart-wrenching documentaries about civil rights. 

It is our hope that these recommendations start or continue essential conversations about race. They can shine a light on ways in which our faith can lead us forward into a world that is more diverse and accepting. 

What films and books have you experienced that promoted thoughts or conversation about anti-racism? Share the title with us at SJC@southchurch.com.

“Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom”
Carole Boston Weatherford
Grades 3-5 

Follow Harriet Tubman’s physical and spiritual journey. Weatherford and illustrator Kadir Nelson retell her story of bravery and faith via the Underground Railroad. Click here for more children’s and adult books and a movie…all about the Underground Railroad.

Alan S. Kim and Steven Yeun in “Minari.” Photo courtesy of A24

“Minari”
Lee Isaac Chung
PG-13

Minari is the semi-autobiographical story of a first generation Korean-American family and their move from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980’s in pursuit of a better life and the “American dream.” They move to a small trailer on a large plot of land with the intent to become successful independent farmers of Korean produce. Upon seeing the home (trailer) for the first time, the mother Monica says to her husband Jacob “This isn’t what you promised.”  Click for additional reading, NPR interviews, how to access the film, and questions to consider…

“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”
Chiwetel Ejiofor
recommended for 10+, some sad or scary scenes
Netflix

This movie is a frighteningly realistic yet inspiring story of the multi-faceted challenges of drought, farming, civil disruption, and heartache in a small community in Malawi, Africa.  A teenager combines his inventiveness and curiosity with persistence and access to a library to bring about a small miracle that helps his community survive the challenges it faces.  This is also available as a book for adults and a book for young readers. Click here for the official trailer and discussion questions.

“Queen of Katwe”
Mira Nair
PG rating

“While the Queen of Katwe is based on a true story about a Ugandan girl who becomes an international chess champion, it really is about a Ugandan girl who teaches us how to win at a game called life.” (Blackandmarriedwithkids) The movie begins with Phiona Mutesi, a 10 year old illiterate girl who lives in Katwe, a slum in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.  Phiona must help her struggling family survive by selling corn in the streets while her mother, a widow, tries to keep Phiona and her 3 siblings safe. They lose their small one room shack, become un-housed and are on the verge of starvation. Click for questions to consider, the trailer and more…

More from the SJC

SJC signs on to Criminal Justice Reform

Read GBH’s “Prisoner Advocates Call For Reform Of Parole Board As Covid Spreads”

Jesus called us to care for the prisoner.  In 2021,  we are responding to this call by focusing our support on effective and fair criminal justice in Massachusetts, concentrating on our state’s poor racial equity record.  This is a bipartisan issue.

Most of us think of Massachusetts as a progressive state. But it is shocking to find our state has the fourth worst record in the country for racial disparities in criminal justice.  This includes the Parole Board.

On January 4th, the SJC signed a letter to state officials (along with 72 other Massachusetts organizations) calling for substantial reforms of the Parole Board.  We have plans to lobby for two state criminal justice reform bills; to uncover how justice stands in Essex County; and determine what action we can take.  The key emphasis will be on youth justice which has the poorest racial disparities record and the most potential for reform.

Conversations About the Justice System

Courageous Conversations, in partnership with Memorial Hall Library, is offering a series on online conversations focusing on the justice system and issues related to mass incarceration and the very real everyday impacts on communities, especially Black and Latinx communities. They are designed for everyone to participate in meaningful conversation and developing actions that can be taken.

Each program focuses on racial justice with local activist voices at the core. All are open to the public, registration is required.

3/10/2021 @ 7:00 PM – We Need to Talk About An Injustice: The Work of Bryan Stevenson
4/14/2021 @ 7:00 PM – What Positive Justice Looks Like: A Panel Discussion with UTEC (United Teen Equality Center) (Breaking Barriers to Youth Success)

Our South Church Library is a great resource for books about racial justice for both adults and children. Click here for book recommendations and info on how to safely check out our books.

The 21 Day Challenge highlights media that we found deepened our understanding of racism. We share personal reflections and how we connect this work to our faith as Christians.