The following is a version of remarks given by Prison Fellowship President and CEO Jim Liske at Movement Day NYC, a gathering of Christian leaders discussing how to cultivate Gospel movements in urban areas across the country. For more information about Movement Day, visit www.movementday.com.
Our criminal justice system is facing a crisis
The United States makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, but it has 25 percent of its prison population. That translates to 2.3 million—or 1 in 33 Americans.
Some experts blame these numbers on laws from the 1970s that led to high rates of incarceration for those who had committed non-violent drug crimes, as well as mandatory minimum sentencing laws that sent those who had committed drug offenses to prison for long periods of time. Others say that the problem is due to aggressive prosecution that leads to more plea bargains and more prison terms.
Clearly the reasons are complex, but whatever they are, it’s a problem we’re all paying for.
Every year, 700,000 people are released from prison. The sad reality is that many of them aren’t any better than when they first got to prison. In fact, some are more violent than when they arrived. Things like overcrowding and limited funding for educational programs have forced the leaders of many of our prisons to focus on warehousing over and above rehabilitating those in their charge.
Often opportunities for things like work and skills training programs, anger management classes, substance abuse treatment, parenting classes—things that could genuinely change someone’s life for the good—are lost. Without intervention, two-thirds of the 700,000 released will be rearrested within three years, and more than one-half will return to prison.
And the destructive cycle continues, shattering lives and communities and costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars to incarcerate just one person; on average about $28,000. Even if the cycle doesn’t continue and someone is able to leave prison for good, they often enter what we’ve come to call the second prison—a world in which there are literally thousands of collateral consequences for having a criminal conviction. Things that inhibit people from finding housing, voting, and obtaining jobs.
And then there are the children. 2.7 million children—or 1 in 28—have a parent who is incarcerated. For black and Hispanic children, the percentage is even higher.
These children often grow up in dire poverty, with feelings of loneliness and abandonment, as well as the social stigma of having a parent behind bars. According to research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these children are more likely to deal with things like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and substance abuse. The Urban Institute Justice Policy Center found that they are twice as likely to have major depression or attention disorders. Other research discovered that they are three times as likely as their peers to get in trouble with the law.
But what if it didn’t have to be this way? For those who need to be incarcerated, what if prison could be a place where someone’s life actually took a turn for the better? What if people could leave prison and rather than turn back to a life of crime, contribute instead to making their communities safer and being restored to their families? What if children of prisoners could know that they are loved—deeply—and have a bright future? What if we thought outside the bars, by promoting other forms of accountability like drug and mental health courts and restorative justice programs that are more effective at changing behavior?
To be honest, I didn’t know much about the people impacted by incarceration before my own nephew went to prison. And although I knew the truth that every man and woman is created in God’s image and that no one is beyond His reach, it wasn’t until I had this experience that I began to see how true that really was.
I also became convinced that the Church—as the Body of Christ—has a mandate to extend love and grace to those who are incarcerated. In Matthew 25: 36- 40, Jesus said, “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me …Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
For almost 40 years, we have followed Jesus words and we have seen God transform the lives of thousands of men and women that society had given up on.
So we share the Gospel. But we also work hard to change the prison culture. We envision a criminal justice system that provides proportional punishment. This means that people receive sentences that fit their crime and intent.
We attempt to create a constructive prison culture where people have opportunities to learn from their past and come home as good neighbors. It also means that prisons are safe places, where prisoners and corrections officers alike are safe, treated with respect and dignity.
We promote full closure—that once people have served their time, they can move on with their lives. They can be reconnected in healthy ways to their families. Victims of crime feel cared for. And the community is safer.
We all have a role to play in breaking the cycle of crime and beginning a cycle of renewal.
Pray. Prison is a tough mission field. Every day, we face many hurdles in bringing the Gospel to those behind bars. But every day, through the prayers of people like you, God is moving in the hearts and minds of men and women in prisons throughout America, transforming those who had no hope into powerful missionaries for His Church.
Employ. Are you a business owner? Getting a job is one of the biggest barriers former prisoners face when they come home. If you own a business, you might consider giving someone a second chance to become a productive citizen. Churches can help lead the way by providing the fellowship and accountability that help ex-prisoners lead new lives.
Give. Angel Tree is an amazing program that equips churches to minister to prisoners and their families by providing Christmas gifts and the Gospel to children on behalf of their incarcerated parents. While there aren’t any current volunteer opportunities in New York, there is a huge need for funding to make sure that every child is reached. In fact, we still have more than 100,000 children across the country who might not receive Christmas gifts if we do not reach our financial goals.
Volunteer. You can help restore prisoners to their God-given potential by creating and sustaining in-prison programs that help people learn new values and skills. Have you ever thought about leading a Bible study in prison or teaching a class on parenting?
Advocate. Here’s one very specific thing you can do TODAY. At Prison Fellowship, we have an entire arm of our ministry dedicated to the types of reforms I mentioned earlier. And you don’t have to be a policy guru to make a difference. In fact, RIGHT NOW, you could play a role in advocating for more proportionate sentencing and more restorative prison program opportunities. After this session, please go to the Prison Fellowship booth where you have the opportunity to sign a pre-drafted letter to your member of Congress asking him or her to co-sponsor the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a landmark piece of legislation that has remarkable bipartisan support. The legislation would reform mandatory minimum sentencing, allowing greater judicial discretion in sentencing, and reducing mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenses, while promoting in-prison programs to reduce recidivism. You can also support this effort by visiting www.justicefellowship.org.