A prison sentence is not the end of a life.
Perhaps no one demonstrated this truth better than Chuck Colson, the former aide to President Nixon who emerged from a federal prison camp to found Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families. Yet all too often we, as a society, act as though those behind bars have forfeited their value and their right to basic human dignity.
I am honored to serve on the new Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, which met for the first time in late January. Named for my organization’s founder, the Task Force is a bipartisan, nine-member panel chaired by J.C. Watts, that will address long-existing challenges in federal corrections and make data-driven recommendations to make the system more effective and just—for the sake of prisoners and our communities alike.
When Colson left federal prison in 1976, he made it his mission to never forget the men he had met behind bars. Because he recognized that the likelihood of men and women being transformed in prison is closely linked to the kind of justice system in which they serve their time, his work included the founding of Justice Fellowship, the criminal justice reform and advocacy arm of Prison Fellowship, in 1983. Now the Task Force dedicated to improving federal prison conditions bears his name. Though Colson died in 2012, I know he would be gratified to see his story come full-circle.
In the last several years, individual states have already begun to pursue prison reform that hold offenders accountable and yet give them hope for restoring their lives once they’ve served their time. Hawaii has seen success through its HOPE program, which guarantees “swift and sure sanctions” for those who violate the terms of their probation. This accountability-intensive approach, which affirms offenders’ potential by expecting them to do better, has been so effective, it’s being copied in courtrooms nationwide. Some states are increasing their use of earned-time credits, which allow people to earn the right to rejoin the community earlier by using their time productively, and still others are reducing sentences for non-violent offenses.
Reforms like these offer hope for evidence-based, cost-effective changes the Task Force will examine. But we can go a step farther.
The time is right for prison reforms that aren’t just evidence-based, but values-based, reflecting our beliefs in the God-given dignity, value, and potential of every human being. Justice can be restorative when we make sure that the opportunity for both accountability and redemption are balanced at the core of our criminal justice system.
Why should justice be restorative? At its heart, crime isn’t about law-breaking; it’s about violating the peace and wholeness of the entire community. Public safety may require that we lock someone up, but that alone will not heal victims or the community or change the conditions that help breed crime. When the responsible party has the opportunity for redemption and restoration — by making amends to his victims, changing his thinking, and earning back the public’s trust by living a law-abiding, constructive life upon release—the community can find healing and move beyond the vicious cycle of crime and incarceration.
I have a nephew who spent five years in a Texas prison. When he was released, I predicted with great sadness that he would go back to prison because his heart had not yet changed, and I was right. But during his third time in prison, it dawned on him that when he sold drugs, he was fueling a debilitating addiction in real people – many of whom had innocent children. I believe that shift in thinking is why he has been out for three years now. Government cannot mandate that kind of change in any individual, but it can facilitate change through policies that emphasize human dignity and prioritize restoration alongside accountability.
The Charles Colson Task Force is an important first step that honors the legacy of a visionary leader, but the challenges facing our criminal justice system cannot be solved by this group alone. It’s time for everyone with a stake in criminal justice and public safety—which is all of us—to call for reforms that elevate and prioritize victims’ voices, provide genuine opportunities for prisoners’ moral rehabilitation, and engage the entire community in breaking the cycle of crime.
We all need to speak up to create the kind of restorative society, based on the dignity and value of every life, that each of us wants to call home.