Acton Commentary

Magistrates and Ministers — A Case for Faith-based Prison Reform


The Department ofJustice's annual report on the U.S. prison population brings to light somealarming statistics on the state of the criminal justice system. According to the July report, thenumber of people under the supervision of the corrections system - whether onparole, probation, or incarcerated — reached almost 6.9 million in 2003. Thisis the highest total in the history of the United States and represents about3.2 percent of the nation's population.

These figures follow on the heels of the June 23 report byan American Bar Association (ABA) commission, in response to a call by SupremeCourt Justice Kennedy in his speech at the 2003 ABA Annual Meeting in SanFrancisco. Justice Kennedy focused on the “inadequacies--and the injustices--inour prison and correctional systems,” and implored the ABA to fashion a reportaddressing these issues.

The sheer numbers of persons locked up in America attest tothe inadequacies of the criminal justice system. Incarcerated citizensrepresent a terrible instance of failed potential, economically, socially, andmorally. Able adults who are behind bars cannot contribute to the economy byusing their God-given talents creatively. They cannot build up civil society byparticipating in social networks and supporting families. Their possibilitiesfor doing good are constrained, because they have chosen to do bad in the past.

And there are even more concrete negative economicconsiderations associated with the growing costs of incarcerating a growingpopulation of prisoners. Alongwith more prisoners comes more cost, and as the Bureau of JusticeStatistics reports , from 1982 to 2001, expenditures in the criminal justicesystem skyrocketed (expenditures for police up 281 percent; corrections, up 529percent; judicial, up 383 percent).

Some Proposed Solutions

Given these rising numbers, a number of legislators arerallying in support of the Second Chance Act of 2004 (H.R. 4676). Thislegislation is partly aimed at better equipping and involving community-basedorganizations in the process of reintegrating ex-inmates into society. This act focuses primarily on fundingstate and local governments, but to the extent that it begins to reckon withprivate groups, it represents a step in the right direction.

The Second Chance Act of 2004 is in agreement with the ABAcommission report, as both do well to acknowledge the critical role thatinstitutions other than the government can play in combating the scourge ofcrime in American society.

Among the recommendations that the ABAcommission makes along these lines, and that are picked up in the legislation,is that the criminal justice system should “establish community partnershipsthat include corrections and police officers, prosecutors, and communityrepresentatives committed to promoting successful reentry into the communityand that measure their performance by the overall success of reentry.”

This recommendation agrees with the position of the U.S.Conference of Mayors, who at their annual conference in June adopted a resolution (PDF) to create a“national re-entry consortium” to bring together government and religiousleaders to help people leaving prison readjust to society.

Valuing Community Organizations

Such public and private partnerships have too often beenoverlooked by government officials as effective methods of reducing the reentryrate for those who have been imprisoned.According to the Justice Department, 38 percent of those on parole in2003 were returned to incarceration with a new sentence or because of a paroleviolation, and some 9 percent were on the run from the law.

That the government's attempts to reform criminal offendersare so often futile should be no real surprise, given that the role of thestate in response to criminal activity is primarily to enact justpunishment. This is in accord withthe Apostle Paul's description of the duties of the civil magistrate. Paul writes that the ruler is “God'sservant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bearthe sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bringpunishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4 NIV). By its very nature, the state relies on coercive force topunish evil, and it is the fear of this punishment that functions as theprimary deterrent for a person to refrain from evil activity.

Thus, the use of coerciveforce has limited effectiveness, mostly because it works as an externaldiscouragement, and cannot address the internal orientation of the human personto evil. This is especiallyapparent when the perceived reward for criminal activity is high compared to arelatively low risk (of capture, punishment, or death). This is one of the reasons why so manyyouths get caught up in the drug trade, because the street price andprofitability of drug dealing for many outweighs the risk of imprisonment ordeath.

While the state exerts external coercive force to punishcrime, faith-based community groups are able to address the internal spiritualissues at the core of evil activity.Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries is just one example ofmany organizations that focus on effectively ministering to prisoners. Because these community groups areprivate and not subject to the restrictions binding government agencies, theyare able to engage prisoners on a personal and spiritual level, focusing on theneeds of the whole human person, body and soul.

This comprehensive approach is much more effective atdiscouraging recidivism among inmates.A 1997study of Prison Fellowship Bible Studies in the state of New York foundthat “Inmates who attended 10 or more PF Bible studies in a year were nearlythree times less likely to be re-arrested during 12 months after release.” Specifically with regard to re-arrest,“Only 14 percent of those who attended at least 10 PF Bible studies in a yearwere rearrested, compared with 41 percent of the non-PF group.” These numbers are significant becausethere is such a dramatic gap in recidivism, and because such results have beenreinforced time and again, study after study.

The activities of faith-based organizations like PrisonFellowship Ministries are necessary complements to the state's enforcement ofcriminal punishments. In order toeffectively address the future of those who have committed crimes, governmentofficials and politicians must continue to increase their recognition of thecritical role these private institutions play in the reform of criminals andthe contribution to a healthy and vibrant society.

Graphic Source: U.S. Department of Justice · Office of Justice Programs - Bureau of Justice Statistics