The criminal justice system was a vital concern to the late Chuck Colson and the organization he founded, Prison Fellowship. The need for Reform is ongoing. And to that end, John Stonestreet welcomes former Congressman J. C. Watts, who’s chairman of the new congressional task force working to promote both reform and rehabilitation.
Watts, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003, is someone Chuck Colson respected deeply. So when Congress set out to select a chair for the bipartisan Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, Watts was the natural choice.
“I think the life of Chuck Colson puts a smile on the face of our Lord,” says Watts. “Chuck gives us a picture of what life can look like even after mistakes. And as I said, I don’t think there’s any such thing as a lost cause in Heaven.”
Together with eight other members, Watts is examining the challenges to the federal corrections system and developing practical solutions for Congress. The task force also includes Alan B. Mollohan, a Democratic Congressman from West Virginia, as well as attorneys, a federal judge, an economist, a criminologist, a reentry specialist, and state corrections officials. Another key member is Prison Fellowship CEO Jim Liske, who not only brings to bear the legacy of Chuck Colson, but the ongoing policy expertise of Justice Fellowship, Prison Fellowship Ministries’ justice reform wing.
So why this work? Why now? As Watts explains, the federal corrections system is on an unsustainable course. In 1980 there were 21,000 federal inmates. Today there are over 220,000—far in excess of population growth—and this despite a marked decrease in violent crime during those years. In short, we’re locking up too many people, many for crimes that shouldn’t require long-term incarceration.
“I’ve seen first hand as I travel around the country the toll that prison takes on families,” says Watts, “the toll that it takes on local communities, how it affects job prospects, how it affects life outcomes. I just learned or concluded about seventeen, eighteen years ago that prison is something we need to reserve for those who really need to be there.”
Some of the changes the task force recommends will likely take their cues from state governments, which have implemented innovative reforms. Abolishing mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, suggesting alternative penalties, de-federalizing aspects of corrections, and offering judges more discretion are all ways Congress could ease the burden on the federal prison system.
“I think it’s better to prepare inmates and get them ready for the outside again as opposed to just giving them three meals and a cot,” explains Watts. “When we can prove to Congress that we can do that and we’ve made solid, sound recommendations based on data … it sure helps them to see it with less of a jaundiced eye.”
And perhaps the most important reform Watts and others on the task force are hoping for is a focus on restoration within prison walls themselves—an aim that Chuck Colson advanced for decades through Prison Fellowship.
“I do think people’s lives can be changed even within the walls of a prison and I think Chuck Colson is an example that there’s no such thing as a lost cause, even if it’s someone who’s incarcerated.”
One of the most touching experiences Watts recalls since agreeing to chair the task force was a conversation with Liske, in which the Prison Fellowship CEO informed him inmates around the country were praying for his work.
“I almost started bawling right there,” confesses Watts. “Jim said ‘I challenged [the inmates] to pray for this task force; that we will do good work and that our only special interest would be to create a product at the end of the day that the American people and Chuck Colson … would be proud of. And I’m a knucklehead enough to believe we can do that.”
Click below to listen to John Stonestreet’s interview with J. C. Watts from BreakPoint This Week.