The following post originally appeared on the Justice Fellowship blog.
On Thursday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) announced the rollout of his anti-poverty proposal, “Expanding Opportunities in America.” In the proposal, Ryan highlighted the 2.2 million Americans currently incarcerated and pushed for loosening the economic burdens that these men and women face upon return to their communities.
“We have seen a dramatic rise in incarceration over the past 30 years and a consequential explosion in corrections budgets,” said Craig DeRoche, executive director of Prison Fellowship’s advocacy arm, Justice Fellowship. “Congressman Ryan may be House Budget Committee Chairman, but his proposal is focused on the most important cost: the devastating impact the system has on families and communities. We must refocus the justice system on its true purpose to restore those affected by crime − victims, offenders, and communities.”
Ryan’s proposal calls for reforms in three areas: sentencing; prison programming to reduce recidivism; and supporting state, local, and non-governmental initiatives.
First, the proposal cited dramatic increases in mandatory minimum sentences, especially for non-violent and low-level crime, as a significant contributor to the growth in the federal prison population. Only six percent of the federal prisoners are incarcerated for violent crimes. Ryan called on Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act to reduce rigid and excessive mandatory sentences for drug offenders that “may add to an already over-crowded prison system without appreciably enhancing public safety.”
Longer sentences do not necessarily result in prisoners being better prepared to rejoin society. In fact, Ryan’s proposal cited Justice Fellowship’s analysis on how “prison culture often has the opposite effect.”
Accordingly, Ryan advocated for passing a second piece of legislation, the Public Safety Enhancement Act (a similar bill was introduced in the Senate: the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act). The legislation seeks to identify the risks and needs of federal prisoners in order to assign appropriate rehabilitation programming and to increase incentives to participate in programming.
Finally, the proposal featured promising initiatives led by state and local agencies and non-profit organizations to help prevent crime and reintegrate men and women returning from prison. Ryan specifically lauded the work that faith-based organizations do to turn around people’s lives.
“We are thrilled that Congressman Ryan’s criminal justice reform recommendations include two of Justice Fellowship’s federal legislative priorities,” said DeRoche. “These bills help advance key principles of restorative justice. The Smarter Sentencing Act will establish proportionate consequences for non-violent drug offenders and the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act will encourage constructive culture within prisons. If we are going to truly fix the problems of the criminal justice system, however, it will take more than legislative proposals. We need citizens advocating for reform and stepping up to care for all those impacted by crime.”
Will you join the call for reform? Use Justice Fellowship’s easy online advocacy tool to email your legislators in support of the Smarter Sentencing Act and the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act today!
If you are interested in bringing restoration to those impacted by crime, Prison Fellowship Ministries offers many opportunities to serve prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families. Prison Fellowship volunteers serve as mentors to men and women behind bars, and provide both physical and spiritual support for those reentering society through the Bridge Churches program. Through Angel Tree, Prison Fellowship is able to share the love of Christ with the families of prisoners, providing Christmas gifts to children on behalf of their incarcerated parent, and providing support and encouragement to these families year-round.
To learn how you or your church can be a part of this ministry, please visit www.prisonfellowship.org/get-involved.
Chicago lawmakers have decided it’s time to take a fresh approach to counteracting all the gun violence and overflowing jails in their city. And this fresh approach starts with the young people.
Illinois’ legislature has passed a law allowing the court to automatically expunge from their records minor arrests of juveniles. With some exceptions, the slates of juveniles arrested but not charged will be wiped clean, erasing the arrests as they enter adulthood.
ABC News reports, “The goal is to give tens of thousands of teens a better chance to find work or get into college, rather than letting a minor episode with police possibly doom them to a life on the gang-dominated streets of some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.”
While expungement has been an option for some time now, many are unaware of the opportunity or unable to hire a lawyer and pay for the process. But with the passing of this new law, more young people with minor arrests are getting a second chance at living a life free from a criminal record.
Although some Chicago lawmakers oppose the soft message automatic expungement may send to young people, others note that past methods have failed and a different plan is necessary to change the course of the city’s future.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says he wants to see more young people graduating school and making a successful career for themselves. He states, “If they have a record, it’s harder, [and] if they don’t have a record, they’ll get a job, and they will be less likely to have a life of crime.”
“I was a judge you really didn’t want to appear in front of,” says Tom Kohl, presiding judge in Washington County, Oregon. “I was really harsh, especially toward drug addicts that were charged with crimes.”
An estimated 30,000 people abuse alcohol or illicit drugs in Washington County, and Tom felt little compassion when they appeared before him in court.
But Tom’s attitude changed when he learned that his own daughter, Megan, was abusing drugs. As he saw her sinking deeper into drug abuse, his sympathy for drug addicts grew, and he began a drug court in March 2005 to help people like her.
Drug court is an intensive treatment program for addicts who have been charged with crimes. It involves counseling, group therapy, employment, and a weekly meeting with a judge.
“Our mission in drug court is to save people’s lives, to break the cycle of addiction, and to restore family relationships,” says Tom.
Tom hoped that drug court would help his addicted daughter.
“[My wife and I] were praying that Megan would be brought into the system because she wasn’t being accountable to anyone,” says Tom. “People who are moms and dads of addicts can understand that prayer.”
The Kohls’ prayers were answered when authorities charged Megan with meth distribution in May 2006, but she would never have an opportunity to face justice.
On July 21, 2006, at the age of 21, Megan was murdered.
“It’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” says Tom. “When I received word from the police officer … there was so much sorrow, despair, hopelessness.”
Humor is a very powerful thing. It has the ability to entertain. It can connect people who otherwise might have very little in common and allow old friends to revisit happy times and places. A well-timed joke can relieve tension, foster conversation, encourage, bring cheer, and alleviate melancholy.
It can also inform, elucidate, and raise awareness of serious issues – sometimes in ways a simple recitation of facts cannot.
On his “Last Week Tonight” program, comedian John Oliver delivers a lengthy monologue focused on the state of the corrections system in the United States. The commentary deals with a wide range of prison-related issues – from mandatory minimums, to solitary confinement, to the privatization of prisons, to the number of children with at least one parent behind bars. At one point, Oliver plays a clip from Sesame Street’s “Little Children, Big Challenges” program which is specifically intended for children of inmates.
“Just think about that,” Oliver says incredulously. “We now need adorable, singing puppets to explain prison to children in the same way they explain the number seven or what the moon is.”
How are Christians called to serve our broken neighbors? In a sermon to Ridge Point Community Church in Holland, Michigan, Prison Fellowship Ministries President and CEO Jim Liske discusses the importance of being “people of restoration” for those in need of God’s healing.
“Our destiny in faith is to be people of restoration,” says Liske. “And that means going to where the brokenness is, and determining that we are going to bring the Kingdom. We’re going to bring God’s rule and reign, and we’re going to bring the Gospel and we’re going to bring grace, and we’re going to refuse to identify people by their past. And our faith is going to say, ‘No, hope is here, I can see the improvement, and God is going to empower it.’ That’s our task. That’s our opportunity. That’s our calling.”
In the aftermath of any senseless act of violence, we cry out, “Why?” We feel more vulnerable in the communities we live in. We reach out for solutions that would prevent something similar from happening in the future. But most often, we are left without any real answers.
In my work with the incarcerated all over the country, I find myself in a unique position to get answers to the tough question of “why.” While visiting a prison I asked a group of men, all sentenced for murder, why they took another person’s life. All of them answered the same way: They didn’t see the victim as a person, but as an object that stood between them and what they wanted. They all agreed that if they would have rightfully recognized that victim’s human value, they never could have killed them.
It turns out that Scripture offers us a simple, time-tested antidote to this damaging perspective: “Love one another” (John 13:34); “value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3); and “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).
When Judge Tom Kohl’s daughter was murdered, he took these words to heart. This Prison Fellowship® volunteer went to visit his daughter’s killer, explain the love of Jesus, and offer forgiveness. Judge Kohl’s testimony has helped many people behind bars to find forgiveness and peace with God. But that would never have happened unless he first recognized the God-given value in another person – even in the man who took his daughter’s life.
Jesus’ call to “remember the prisoner” goes hand in hand with this command to value one another. When we do, we naturally build the kind of communities we all want to live in.
Marlon is a living testament to second chances.
Born in Central America, Marlon arrived in the United States at age 6. As a child, he suffered as a victim of abuse. And when he was 7, he witnessed his first drive-by shooting. He watched a man die just feet away from him.
During his adolescence, Marlon was exposed to the world of gangs, and he began selling drugs on Los Angeles street corners. He got heavily involved in the cocaine trade and dropped out of high school. By the age of 17, Marlon was bringing in thousands of dollars a week as a dealer. But one day his world came crashing down. His closest ‘friends’ set him up, and he was robbed at gunpoint and beaten nearly to death.
After this, Marlon vowed to never sell cocaine again.
But it wasn’t long before Marlon met a group of people involved in the marijuana trade and began dealing drugs again. He fell deeper and deeper into a dangerous lifestyle — until he faced a life sentence for attempted murder.
A Fork in the Road
A plea bargain left Marlon with five years to serve in prison, with a deportation to Central America at the end of his sentence.
While incarcerated, Marlon met a Christian inmate who explained to him that he had two choices for his future: He could continue down a path detrimental to both himself and those around him, or he could become a man working to improve his life and his community. Marlon learned more about the concept of becoming a leader of positive change in The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI), a joint program of Prison Fellowship and World Impact that provides seminary-level education for prisoners.
Today there are approximately 2.7 million children with a mom or dad behind bars in this country. There’s no easy way to tell who these boys and girls are. They are all over the country, in busy cities and sleepy towns, in gated communities and run-down projects. Many of them are carrying emotional burdens far too heavy for their years.
The Church is God’s Plan A for loving the hurting, and local churches, with roots deep in their communities, are the group best positioned to embrace these children and their families, wherever they are. Angel Tree churches sign up to do just that.
Margo Nance volunteers to coordinate the Angel Tree program at Embassy Church in Cook County, Illinois, where many prisoners’ children live.
“Angel Tree affords us an opportunity to go to people we don’t know and minister to them, where we know the need is great,” Margo says.
As an example, Margo shares how a church representative called a child’s caregiver and heard a heartbreaking story of need. The family, including a newborn baby, had just lost its home in a fire. Touched by the family’s difficult circumstances, the church went above and beyond to provide much-needed items for the entire family. The caregiver was so blessed by the church’s restorative concern for her family she came back later to ask for prayer.
If we want to make the invisible Kingdom visible, we must go out of our way to notice those who feel invisible, to come alongside them and say, “You are not alone. God sees you. He loves you, and so do we.”
Churches large and small, urban and rural, can embrace this joyous calling. Learn how to become an Angel Tree church at www.angeltree.org.
The following post originally appeared on the Justice Fellowship website.
With the amount of talk about recidivism, there is very little focus on people who do not commit another offense after their release. It is assumed that everyone who committed an offense poses a high threat of committing another one. But what if that assumption is incorrect?
A new report commissioned by Justice Fellowship finds that many people who committed crimes reach a point where their likelihood of committing another offense is equal to that of the general population. This idea, called “Risk Convergence,” states that formerly incarcerated individuals who do not reoffend over a certain amount of time return to the same risk as the general population.
The report describes three variables that affect the risk convergence timeline for a specific person who committed an offense. The first variable is the age of the person who committed the offense. The younger the individual, the longer it takes to reach a point of risk convergence. A 21-year-old who commits the same crime as a 35-year-old will take longer to have their risk of reoffending converge with the general population. The second variable is if violence is involved with the offense. When someone commits a violent crime, it takes longer for their risk level to come down. The third variable is whether it was a first offense. People who commit multiple offenses may take much longer to reach risk convergence.
For prisoners who began their time behind bars at a young age, release can be especially overwhelming. As these men and women reenter society for the first time as adults and learn how to navigate daily life, they also face the challenge of resisting the old, familiar lifestyle that led to their incarceration.
Michael is one ex-prisoner who has fought this battle, and won.
Growing up in Dallas, the temptation of street life overtook Michael, and he joined a gang. Then, when a dispute with a rival gang arose and a man was shot and killed, Michael’s world turned upside down.
At the age of 18, Michael was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 45 years in prison, which was later reduced to 20 years.
A Change of Course
While serving his sentence, Michael heard about Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) from a fellow inmate. Although he had never given God much thought before prison, Michael decided he would sign up for this reentry program based on the life and teachings of Jesus.