Chuck Colson said for years that America locks up too many people for too long. That has to change. And it soon might. Stay tuned to BreakPoint.
Earlier this week, at a meeting of the American Bar Association, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a much-anticipated speech on criminal justice.
As we here at BreakPoint have documented, our criminal justice system needs fixing. At best, it does a mediocre job of protecting communities most in need of protection, while at the same time, branding virtually an entire cohort of young men as outcasts and pariahs. Too often, victims’ needs go unmet and the families of offenders are forgotten.
So it was gratifying to hear Holder saying what Chuck Colson and our colleagues at Justice Fellowship have been saying for years: “It’s clear–as we come together today,” he said, “that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”
Well, that’s an understatement. While our nation has just 5 percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, many of them for nonviolent offenses.
It was also good to hear him acknowledge that “the course we are on is far from sustainable.” In 1980, there were 25,000 inmates in federal prisons; today there are 219,000, and the system is dangerously overcrowded, operating at 140 percent of capacity.
And in many states, corrections spending is rising faster than any other area of government except Medicaid.
The Attorney General also questioned whether the “war on drugs”—now entering its fifth decade!—has ever been “truly effective.”
The answer—“no.” This isn’t to deny the devastating impact that drugs have on individuals and communities. The problem is that incarceration is our preferred and often only weapon of choice in combating the scourge.
And it’s usually wielded in an ineffective and costly manner. The explosion in the federal prison system I just mentioned is largely a product of locking up easily-replaceable low-level drug couriers while leaving the actual supply of drugs undisturbed. Without a real path to restoration, these petty criminals often get worse—not better—in prison.
Let’s face it: the President, his predecessor, and literally millions of Americans have violated the nation’s drug and alcohol laws at some point in their lives. For reasons of prudence and simple justice, incarceration cannot be the automatic response to this issue, especially when the laws are applied so selectively.
Instead, incarceration should be reserved for the people society fears are a risk to public safety.
Now, Holder’s announcement that the Justice Department will no longer charge “low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences,” raise questions about the administration’s approach to enforcing existing federal law.
And that’s why we’d rather see the administration work with members of Congress who’ve already been leading the way in criminal justice reform to re-write or develop new sentencing laws.
And there’s good will on both sides of the aisle to accomplish this. For instance, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and Republican Senator Mike Lee have already introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would lower mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses and give judges flexibility in their sentencing.
And Congressman Frank Wolf has proposed the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections to make recommendations regarding prison overcrowding, violence, programming, and cost in the federal system.
The other thing that’s needed is for Christians to tell their representatives that they support criminal justice reform. Prisoners were close to Chuck’s heart because they are close to God’s heart.
Please come to Justice Fellowship.org to learn how you can support the Smarter Sentencing Act, and Justice Fellowship’s efforts to bring biblically based reforms to the criminal justice system.
Further Reading and Information
Holder’s Welcome Remarks on Justice: Fixing the System – Next Steps
While the Attorney General’s announcement is a good first step, there’s much more we can do to reform the nation’s criminal justice system. Justice Fellowship, founded by Chuck Colson, has worked for decades to promote biblically based justice reform.
Unlikely Senate Pair Unveil Smarter Sentencing Act
Sign up to support the Smarter Sentencing Act
Crime and Reconciliation
Chuck Colson | BreakPoint.org | January 13, 1992
Chuck Colson | BreakPoint.org | April 30, 1993
Chuck Colson | BreakPoint.org | July 27, 1994