In January, the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections concluded a year of discussion and research by releasing a series of recommendations for reforming the criminal justice system. Craig DeRoche, Prison Fellowship’s senior vice president for advocacy and public policy, served on the task force, and offers his thoughts on those recommendations, and the future of reform.
What is significant about the task force report?
Well for me, it begins with what it is named for. It speaks directly to who Chuck Colson was, and the Light that God shown through him when he became a Christian. Chuck’s legacy was not lost on the members of Congress who attended a briefing on the bill on the Hill. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) proclaimed that “Chuck Colson embodied the transformation and hope we have for everyone who has gone to prison.”
The report has six very important recommendations that are written in plain English, rather than legalese. The first recommendation is that prison should be used for the fewest people possible. This is important. Today our federal system uses prison for 90 percent of all federal criminal convictions. This doesn’t make any sense. Sure, the population has gone from 220,000 in 2013 to 197,000 today due to reforms in Congress and the Obama Administration—but much more can and should be done. Prison doesn’t help restore those affected by crime the way restorative, proportionate alternative punishments can. Prison Fellowship has long advocated this values-based reform and it is good to see that our approach is being accepted in secular government circles.
There are multiple recommendations that address the core of what Prison Fellowship has advocated for 40 years: that prison should be a constructive, hopeful time where a person is rehabilitated and develops a moral foundation for returning to the community once they have paid their debt. To many this is a radical notion. Our country has accepted prisons that make a bad situation worse, and treat people in sub-human fashion. This failure of accountability to make prisons constructive (as much as they can be) leads to an enormous cost in our communities. It makes us less safe. Our recidivism, or failure rate, is gigantic. .
There seems to be a growing consensus across party lines on the need for significant reforms to the criminal justice system. Do the task force recommendations provide a path to reform that both sides of the aisle can support? Nearly 40 percent of federal prisoners return to prison which squanders the public’s effort in moving people from crime and creates new victims. The fact that the Colson Task Force placed such importance on the treatment of people individually, the access to programming and education and evidence-based incentives for the time they serve demonstrates an enormous cultural victory for the policies to which Chuck Colson gave so much of his life.
It is easy to see policy recommendations through a partisan lens. We all carry our bias into the information we read. In this case though, I think my fellow task force members and the staff generating the report went to great lengths to express ideas and principles for what they were, and set their partisanship aside. We received nearly the same feedback from both democrats and republicans, and it was very positive.
The recommendations are not written in a way that a person could take the language and make it a law. The findings are based in principle and facts. So, there is plenty of room for the parties and leaders on justice reform to express these principles and recommendations in a way that they believe is both practical and politically possible.
What was the biggest challenge the task force faced in producing its recommendations?
The hardest part about producing the recommendations was distilling the mountains of information down to impactful recommendations that we could agree on. Despite some commentary to the contrary, every aspect of the recommendations was not “unanimous.” We operated by consensus. For instance, I believed that faith-based programming was a key part of our third recommendation and this was included in the Executive Summary. I’m not sure that every member agreed that faith-based programming was critical. In working toward consensus, we were able to agree to include this. Another example would be some of the specific policy discussions go further than Prison Fellowship may advocate or support, but were in line with the direction we are advancing on drug policy so they were included too.
You have been very open about your own struggles with addiction and your first-hand experience with the criminal justice system. How did your personal history affect your participation in the task force? Does your story of redemption affect how you view rehabilitation in federal prisons?
I am very grateful to be alive and sober. This is why I share the story of how God lifted me from 29 years of addiction. I think having this background, and living through addiction and recovery gives me an experience I can share that can help other people. In our federal government we often look to experts who teach, have doctorates, hold jobs like a sheriff but we never respect the experience of a Chuck Colson or others who have made the mistakes, paid the price, and have been restored. If we paid more attention to what works, and invested in learning about what works from those who have lived through prison and addiction we’d have better answers.
Suffice it to say, I was the only one on the task force that had a criminal record and had been addicted to anything. I think this helped represent the people we want to see restored. I think it served the others on the panel well too as I was able to counsel them on some of their ideas and desire to express their beliefs.
What comes next?
Chuck Colson was a leader in criminal justice reform from the time he left prison until the day he passed away. He blazed the trail, and created Prison Fellowship so people who had committed crimes and caused harm would have hope and a pathway to restoration. Today Prison Fellowship is a national leading voice on criminal justice reform. Our policy recommendations have shown American leaders that restorative punishment, a constructive culture and closure leads to fewer years in prison—and less crime. We are demonstrating that a values-based approach can restore lives, victims, and communities but we need help. Prison Fellowship currently has a number of openings for volunteer leaders, and advocates. I would encourage everyone reading this to get involved today by signing up to help. Your contribution of time, talent and treasure can make all the difference in the life of a person working to restore the damage they have done, to a victim of a crime and to the communities we are working to change.
What can readers do to support the task force recommendations?
I would encourage everyone to sign up to be an advocate at Prison Fellowship today. It is easy and all we need is your email address. We will contact you as opportunities arise to notify legislators in your state and Congress of the chance they have to put the recommendations in place. Your voice is more important than ours. Your representatives work for you and they look to what they hear and receive from their own district, and not Washington, DC. So, we need your help! Also, feel free to share this with those you know who have been affected by crime and incarceration or who are looking for a Christian organization to help them live out Jesus’ instruction to visit the prisoners.