Which Is Worse: the Guilty Freed or the Innocent Punished?

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New study examines how your race and view of Scripture shape your answer.

Speaking this week on behalf of an Oklahoma death row inmate who claims he did not commit the murder for which he’s served 20 years in prison, pastor T. D. Jakes said, “If Jesus acquitted the guilty, then surely he would advocate for the innocent.”

Jakes is among a group of Christian leaders, including Sojourners’ Jim Wallis, who are advocating for clemency for Julius Jones.

A December study found that both race and views of the Bible may impact how Christians approach mistakes made by the justice system.

White Americans who believe the Bible should be read literally are most likely to see acquitting guilty people as a greater injustice than convicting the innocent, according to sociologists Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead, the authors of the study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Meanwhile, black Americans, regardless of their view of the Bible, agree that convicting innocent people is the worse of the two mistakes.

A majority of both white evangelicals (59%) and black Protestants (63%) in the General Social Survey—the basis for the recent analysis—were biblical literalists, but the white Americans who held that position were twice as likely as black Americans to prefer wrongful conviction over letting a criminal go free.

Of those surveyed, 21 percent said letting the guilty go free is worse, 64 percent said condemning the innocent, 13 percent couldn’t choose and almost 2 percent did not answer. The justice question, along with the one on biblical literalism, have been asked in four different years of the General Social Survey between 1985-2016. There is no difference over time.

“It was fascinating to us to see how punitive attitudes were so strongly …

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