American evangelical leaders overwhelmingly support alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, according to the November Evangelical Leaders Survey. Only 2 percent of respondents do not support alternative measures.

“Evangelical leaders see sky high incarceration rates as bad for the economy, bad for those imprisoned and bad for families,” said Leith Anderson, President of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). “For nonviolent offenders, other types of sentencing have the potential to be more effective in the long run.”

Evangelicals have a particular concern for those in prison as they are mentioned specifically by Jesus when telling his followers to care for the “least of these.” This concern was reflected in the June Evangelical Leaders Survey that showed nearly all evangelical leaders have visited a prison — many of whom did so in a ministry context.

Over the last few decades, evangelicals have been actively engaged in prison ministry and, subsequently, reform advocacy. Through relationships formed in ministry, evangelicals have they seen the negative effects imprisonment often has on prisoners and their families.

“The prison environment often makes criminals worse when they could be truly repaying their debt to society by training to become productive citizens and working,” said Clyde Hughes, General Overseer of the International Pentecostal Church of Christ. He cited an example of a local county judge who sentenced about 400 men to complete their GED. Over 95 percent succeeded, and many are now productive citizens who contribute to the community, he said.

Developing effective punishments that produce genuine results is key to moving away from high incarceration rates. Despite some recent declines, the United States still has the largest prison population in the world. Congress and some state legislatures are considering legislation that would reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws and encourage punishment more focused on rehabilitation.

Randall Bach, President of Open Bible Churches, emphasized the need for well designed sentencing. “Merely relieving the pressure of prison overcrowding and strained budgets by waving offenders through the system is not an acceptable alternative. Alternatives must include specific rehabilitative objectives and policies, or we are deluding ourselves about effectiveness while merely reducing the prison population,” he said.

The NAE has advocated for many prison reform policies addressing overcrowding, unfair sentencing, prison rape, solitary confinement and overpriced phone rates.

The Evangelical Leaders Survey is a monthly poll of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Evangelicals. They include the CEOs of denominations and representatives of a broad array of evangelical organizations including missions, universities, publishers and churches.