Criminal Justice

In 2020, we took on Criminal Justice as an additional policy priority in response to the protests sparked across the world by the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Dreasjon (Sean) Reed and too many others, known and unknown. LOPPCA’s Policy Council voted to use an anti-racist approach in all of our policy work. The punitive criminal justice system of the US is intimately tied to racism. The Thirteenth Amendment did not entirely abolish slavery: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”


Proposed 2020 legislation included anti-discrimination in jury selection, parole reform, police reform, and high-profile constitutional amendments on which voters decided in November 2020.


The criminal justice system in California is one of the harshest and largest in the nation. Get informed about three strike laws, Jerry Brown’s era of leniency, and the power of police unions among elected officials, district attorneys, and those who have power to change the system.

Faith Perspectives

The ELCA guiding social statement gives clear policy directives, such as eliminating for-profit prisons, based on theological reflection and love of neighbor.

2020 Legislation

end ban on affirmative action, restore the right to vote to parolees, reduce discrimination in jury selection…

The 2020 Legislative year has been an anomaly as California responds to COVID-19 and a deep economic recession. During a normal session, bills often go through more than one policy committee (i.e, Public Safety and Education). In corona-session, only single-policy committee bills are scheduled and heard, so legislation is generally less broad in its scope. Still, legislators have introduced important legislation:

Ballot Measures

Look for these on the November 2020 ballot: voters will decide these legislative items. Look for our voter guide in September.

Prop 16: Ending the Ban on Affirmative Action

Prop 16 would allow schools and public agencies to take race and other immutable characteristics into account when making admission, hiring or contracting decisions.

In 1996, California voted passed Prop 209, ending affirmative action in California’s public institutions, agencies, and universities. Following the ban, there was an immediate drop in enrollment of Black and Latino students in California’s public university systems.

The Legislature voted to put this proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot via a bill authored by Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego).

Prop 17: Restoring the Right to Vote to People on Parole

Californians who are in state or federal prison or on parole are not allowed to vote. Criminal sentencing has historically been used to strip the rights of people of color (according tot he 13th amendment, slavery is legal in the US if you have been convicted of a crime).

The Legislature voted to put this proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot via a bill authored by Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento).


AB 901 (Gipson) Juveniles

Ends the practice of putting youth on probation when they have not committed a crime.

AB 3070 (Weber) Anti-Discrimination in Jury Selection

Addresses racial discrimination in jury selection.

SB 555 (Mitchell) Phone Justice

Limits the cost of phone calls and commissary in jail.

AB 2054 (Kamlager) CRISES Act

Creates an alternative emergency response to the police.

Understanding California’s Criminal Justice System

overcrowding, private for-profit prisons, three strikes laws, police immunity

One could do multiple PhDs studying the criminal justice system and its history, racialization, symbology, socialization, uses, and effects. Here, we will give some brief context for our present advocacy work and provide resources to help you dive in further.

To give you perspective, in the 2019-2020 Budget of $214 billion, California spent $15 billion dollars on corrections and rehabilitation (this levels out to about $120,000 per person incarcerated). Since 1980, California has built 22 prisons but just one university.

Incarceration rates compared to NATO countries and California, 2018. Source: (Graph: Peter Wagner and Wendy Sawyer, June 2018)
This graph is a part of the Prison Policy Initiative report, States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2018.

Racial/ETHNIC disparity
EthnicityPrison PopulationPercentage1Share of California’s Population2
1 California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations, Offender Data Points Report

2 Based on US Census Bureau 2020 estimates from the California Department of Health

California’s prison population mushroomed during the tough on crime era.

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court required the California to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of prison capacity by June 2013, (extended to February 2016). In January 2011, the adult inmate population totaled 162,000—approximately 178 percent of capacity. The prison population has been below the court-ordered cap since February 2015. As of June 12, 2019, the prison population was at 134.9%.

In 2019, the average inmate population was 125,871 people, average parolee population was 50,442 people, and the average ward population of 782 in 2019-20. Each of these numbers are daily averages, not taking into account how many are cycling through the system.

In 2016 voters approved Proposition 57, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act, creating more incentives for inmates to participate in rehabilitative programs. Participation in such programs allow people who are incarcerated to earn credits toward shorter sentences and early release.

Voters passed Proposition 47 in November 2014, which requires misdemeanor rather than felony sentencing for certain property and drug crimes and permits inmates previously sentenced for these reclassified crimes to petition for resentencing. 

Policing in California

Police are funded largely at the county and local level via county sheriffs and municipal police departments. The State funds and administers the California Highway Patrol who have jurisdiction over roads, highways, and over the State Capitol grounds.

Yet despite the local nature of their funding, the tactics, training, and approach are fairly uniform across police units.

Hearing the cries

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Luke 4:16–21

Social Statement adopted by the 2013 Churchwide Assembly

The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries affirms some of the principles of the U.S. criminal justice system but also recognizes its serious deficiencies. Many people in the system serve their professional vocations with competent and humane performance. Yet current approaches, such as the emphasis on mass incarceration, impose significant costs on all involved in the system and on society as a whole. These approaches are founded on an underlying punitive mindset and persistent inequalities based on race and class. We are compelled by a holy yearning to address the need for changing public attitudes and postures, and to call for dramatic reforms in policies and practices in the criminal justice system.

Theological underpinnings:
  • God’s justice is wondrously richer and deeper than human imitations, and is a mirror in which justice in this world must always be assessed
  • Individuals must be held accountable, but every person in the criminal justice system deserves to be seen and treated as a member of human communities, created in the image of God and worthy of appropriate and compassionate response
  • To God we owe thanks for human reason and its abilities to discern — with compassion and wisdom — how human communities might reflect at least the justice of the law. “For what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
The problems:
  • Incarceration is used as a form of racial and social control through unfair policing practices, sentencing laws, criminal laws, and restrictions on voting, employment, and access to public services while in prison and upon release from prison.
  • 1 in 3 African American males will go to prison during their lifetime. This prison record will follow them, restricting their employment, education, housing, right to vote, and reducing their income potential.
  • The number of people in prison in the US per 100,000 people is the highest in the world with Black men five times more likely to be incarcerated all groups combined.
  • The United States houses around 22% of the world’s prisoners despite representing 4.4% of the world’s population.
  • Private prisons cut corners, hire fewer employees, pay and train them less, provide substandard medical care, and fail to protect people who are incarcerated from violence.
  • Solitary confinement and other methods of punishment are traumatic and work against rehabilitation.
  • Surviving in prison culture rarely involves learning skills that help a person survive and thrive upon reentry to civil society.
We are called to Advocacy:
  • Fund and support the use of restorative justice, community-based alternatives to incarceration, legislation that reduces sentences for certain offenses, the emergence of specialized courts, and victims’ rights and needs, the reentry preparation
  • Pursue alternatives to incarceration
  • Reform sentencing laws and policies
  • Scrutinize national drug policy
  • Address the implicit and explicit racism that persists within the criminal justice system
  • Recognize and respond to the special needs of juvenile offenders
  • Stop the privatization of prison facilities
  • Foster the full reintegration of ex-offenders into community

Study Guide

Host a bible study or coffee hour using this five session study guide by the ELCA