At the Hands and Feet event at the 225th General Assembly Thursday, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), said the work of GA is not only for the business of the life of the church but also to make the city and the nation a better place.
The Hands and Feet initiative highlights and supports local and national efforts to facilitate change as Presbyterians come together for General Assembly meetings. This year Hands and Feet continues to focus on the issue of cash bail, which burdens predominately Black and brown communities in Louisville. The work on cash bail reform began in St. Louis (site of 223rd General Assembly in 2018) and continued in Baltimore, site of the 224th General Assembly (2020), which ended up being held entirely online from Louisville because of Covid.
“The cash bail system has turned what may have been a misdemeanor crime into a long-term sentence,” said Nelson. “There are municipalities benefiting — profiting off the inability of people to free themselves from these systems.”
Nelson anchored a panel discussion on cash bail with the Rev. Dr. Shannon Craigo-Snell, a professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, director of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness in Washington and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations.
Cash bail is used as a guarantee that a defendant will return for a trial or hearings. Defendants who don’t have the funds to pay a bond premium are forced to await trial in jail — or in a holding place. This is a form of debtor’s prison, Hawkins said, about which the Presbyterian Church first made a strong statement back in 1919.
For Craigo-Snell, the cash bail system, much of the police system and the for-profit private prison system are deeply problematic. Keeping people for profit has a long history in this country, she said, as wealth in the United States was built on the backs of those who were enslaved and kept captive to work for the financial gain of the enslavers.
“The PC(USA) repents of that history and calls it out against the will of God,” she said. “Certain things should never be incentivized for profit.”
Hawkins believes there is a lot of momentum right now to reform the cash bail system. Illinois became the first state to outlaw it entirely, while New Jersey, California and New York City effectively ended cash bail for those who don’t have money to pay it.
“I’m excited as a Christian because of all of our theological teaching; for example, Matthew 25, with Jesus saying, ‘I was in prison and you visited me,’ — the understanding is you came to liberate me and set me free,” he said.
Both Hawkins and Craigo-Snell mentioned the book “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander, which talks about the brutality of the criminal justice system and how it bars people from ever re-establishing their lives and starting over.
“Alexander points out you have for-profit prisons where incarcerated people are working for no money or a couple dollars a day,” Craigo-Snell said. “I go to the grocery store, buy organic greens, do an internet search and find out they were harvested by incarcerated individuals.”
Craigo-Snell compares cash bail — and the way people are kept captive until they have enough money to get out — to the time of the Reformation.
“People were told they couldn’t have salvation unless they paid enough money [for indulgences for the partial remission of temporal punishment for sin],” she said. “But Calvin, Luther and the Reformers said, no, no, no, this is not what God calls us to be doing. What I see happening in General Assembly is Presbyterians continuing that reforming work.”
Watch the panel discussion here.