Programs aimed at changed hearts as well as changed behavior help some offenders become like Onesimus, the runaway slave—and likely thief—that Paul wrote about in his New Testament letter to Philemon. (Paul rejoiced in Onesimus’ Christian conversion and told his master that the once-useless servant was now a beloved brother and “indeed useful to you and to me.”)
WORLD has reported on many such programs over the years—but overcrowded prisons make effective programming harder to provide. Ironically, simply locking up criminals may reduce public safety in the long run, because criminals whose hearts don’t change typically commit new crimes once they get out. A 2005 study by the federal Bureau of Statistics showed 76 percent of inmates rearrested within five years of release.
That recidivism rate isn’t inevitable. Independent studies have shown that the percentage of inmates who had graduated from a Prison Fellowship program and been rearrested within a few years was as low as 14 percent.
Craig DeRoche of Prison Fellowship says Christians should see prison sentencing as an opportunity to restore both victims and perpetrators of crime: “If someone’s sentence isn’t restorative to victims in the community and setting up somebody to be successful in paying back their debt and leaving crime behind, you’re not being very effective.” (See “From Hollywood to prison reform” in this issue.)
Plenty of prisoners won’t reform, but Elain Ellerbe of the conservative group Right on Crime says Huffman’s story is instructive for showing many do change: “We have been far too willing to sacrifice the redeemable for those who can’t.”
IN THE 1980S AND 1990S, such comments were uncommon among conservatives. A massive crack epidemic and soaring crime rates led many lawmakers to push through tougher penalties for repeat offenders.
The prison population exploded. Today, some 2.2 million inmates are in local, state, or federal detention centers in the United States. That number has dropped by 2 percent since 2014, but America still has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Overall crime dropped by 50 percent from 1993 to 2015, according to FBI data. Common sense suggests that’s because more criminals are behind bars, but some statistics undermine that thesis. In a 2011 Washington Post column, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich pointed out that while crime had fallen in nearly every state over the previous seven years, some of the states with the largest reductions in crime had also lowered their prison populations.
For example, Florida’s incarceration rate rose 16 percent, while New York’s decreased 16 percent, but the crime rate in New York fell twice as much as it did in Florida: “Put another way, although New York spent less on its prisons, it delivered better public safety.”
Mark Levin and others at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) made a big suggestion in 2007: Instead of the state’s plan to spend more than $2 billion to add some 17,000 prison beds, Levin helped press lawmakers to redirect a portion of those funds toward rehabilitation programs and mental health services for low-level offenders.
Crime in Texas dropped by 20 percent, and the state’s prison population decreased. In 2010, Levin and TPPF formed Texas Right on Crime, a group that advocates nationwide reform based on conservative principles. Texas has also been a pioneer for two decades in encouraging groups like Prison Fellowship. (See “Reasonable risk,” July 17, 1999.)
With nationwide prison costs swelling to $80 billion a year, other states—including ones with Republican-led legislatures and Republican governors—have begun to follow Texas’ lead. South Carolina has continued to lock up high-risk criminals while using community supervision to monitor low-risk offenders.
A report last year showed the state has saved $491 million in new prison construction costs. About 23 percent of released inmates still return to state prisons after three years, but that’s a decrease since 2010.
The examples point out a key dynamic: To address issues of crime, it’s important to address the issues of criminals. And in many cases, that means dealing with inmates as individuals, instead of categories on a grid.
A GROWING NUMBER of those inmates are women. The number of female inmates has surged—from 7,000 in 1980 to 104,000 in 2010, according to the U.S. Justice Action Network.
Why the dramatic increase? Some point to a crisis in substance abuse, domestic abuse, and psychological problems. More than 80 percent of women in prison have a history of alcohol or drug abuse, according to the Vera Institute. Nearly one-third have had serious mental illness.
It’s an especially acute problem in Oklahoma: The state has more women in prison per capita than any other state in the nation. In 2009, Tulsa County set out to address the underlying issues with a group of women inmates. The state approved the Women in Recovery program administered by Tulsa’s Family and Children’s Services.
The program allows women who are nonviolent offenders with drug-related offenses to enter supervised drug rehabilitation and counseling for 14 to 18 months instead of facing lengthy prison sentences. (Participants enter the program after they enter a guilty plea for their charges, and a judge determines which women may enter.)