The appalling murder of Tom Clements, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, appears to be part of a growing trend of violence against criminal justice officials. Since the beginning of the year, brazen attacks have also taken the lives of the Kaufman County, Texas, district attorney, his wife, and a lead prosecutor.
Mr. Clements’s death was particularly heartbreaking to me and my colleagues at Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families. A deeply religious man who believed in the importance of redemption, he was a strong partner in the effort to promote restoration and reduce recidivism first in his many years of service in Missouri, and later in Colorado.
Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers knew Mr. Clements as a quiet but consistent leader in the field of corrections. He lived out his faith in the public square, and he was often quoted as saying that “anyone can be redeemed.” His untimely death is a profound loss for Colorado – and to all prisoners who, recognizing their mistakes, long for the redemption and restoration he advocated.
It is ironic that Evan Ebel, the alleged shooter who was released early on a clerical error, spent much of his eight-year sentence in solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons – Mr. Clements worked to humanize prisoners, recommending limits on the use of solitary confinement in inmate management. If Mr. Ebel is the killer, he took the life of a man who was far from an enemy of prisoners.
Considering the senseless, violent circumstances of Mr. Clements’s death, how do we carry on in a manner that honors his legacy? Do we lock our doors more tightly and lengthen sentences for all violent offenders? Do we slash restorative programming for inmates? Should we throw in the towel and admit that prisoners can’t be saved, and that we should lock them up forever for the good of society?
There is no denying that evil is real and must be dealt with appropriately. Some prisoners like Mr. Ebel present such an ongoing danger to the public – and even to their fellow inmates – that they cannot be safely released and must remain in solitary confinement. But to paraphrase the Bible, a book that shaped Mr. Clements’s worldview, I hope we will not be overcome by the evil manner of his death, but work even harder to overcome evil with good. Let’s persevere in Mr. Clements’s belief that “anyone can be redeemed,” and support programs the facilitate restoration and renewal for the vast majority of inmates who will one day return to our communities. Let us continue to treat all human beings with dignity and kindness, even when they don’t return the favor.
For far too long, we have asked the wrong question: How do we keep “bad people” out of our backyards? We must learn to ask a different, more courageous set of questions: How do we bring good people home? How do we make prison so full of positive influences that white supremacist groups and others can’t trumpet their messages of hatred and despair?
As Mr. Clements’s death reminded us, evil is indeed real, and we must fight it. Guns must be kept out of the hands of dangerous felons, and clerical errors like the one implicated in Mr. Ebel’s release must be avoided. But our best weapons against violence aren’t guns in every nightstand or life sentences for all offenders – they are redemption, transformation, and a justice that restores. Only when these values permeate our criminal justice system at every level will our streets be safer and our newspapers less full of reports of violence.