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Culture Q&A

James Ackerman

What’s the penalty for murder?

Prison Fellowship’s James Ackerman on prison sentencing, the death penalty, and transformed inmates

 What’s the penalty for murder?

James Ackerman (Lee Love/Genesis)

The May 27 issue of WORLD includes an interview with James Ackerman, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship. Here are some additional edited excerpts.

The Bible talks about particular punishments for particular crimes, and sometimes maximum penalties.

That’s where sentencing guidelines have to come in. In Maryland, getting caught selling a joint to another person lands you five years. In California, Venice Beach is filled with “pharmacies” where you can go in and buy medical marijuana—nobody cares. I don’t think I’m qualified to decide on penalties, but we advocate proportionate sentencing: People have to take responsibility for what they did, but the penalty is not so egregious that it becomes a negative.

How do you know what penalties are just—why, say, one year for a drug offense is just and five is not?

It’s complicated—but if someone commits an armed robbery, nobody’s killed, and you lock a person away for 30 years, does that give justice to the victims and is that the right sentence to prepare that person to live successfully on the outside? I would argue no, it’s too long. You need an incentive-based plan that allows people to be able to prove they are prepared to be productive citizens.

But no sentencing guidelines?

No. We advocate proportionate sentencing and best practices, not specific sentences for specific crimes.

Proportionate sentencing undefined as to what the proportion should be?

In California if you get in a car accident and somebody gets killed, you are probably going to get a five-year sentence. If you go and murder five people in a night, with intention, you’re probably going to end up on death row in San Quentin, which is where my ministry started.

What do you think about the death penalty?

There’s a Biblical argument for and against the death penalty. I’m not going to go there. But mainly because I started my ministry counseling a guy on death row, talking about the merits of the death penalty or not added nothing to the conversation. This is a guy who became a Christian after he was convicted of his crime. He killed eight people in one night, he was definitely going to go to death row in the state of California, he became a Christian and needed somebody to talk to, and he didn’t have anybody to talk to. I took on becoming a counselor to this guy and meeting him in the condemned unit at San Quentin.

In that situation, given that particular case, if you were a judge, would you be for capital punishment, or for life without parole?

I don’t know. There’s no way I’m ever going to be a judge. I think it would be unfair to all judges in the world for me to answer that question.

A few years ago, while visiting various Texas prisons and interviewing people who had murdered and were on life sentences, I learned life in prisons was so miserable that in some cases the people would have preferred death.

True, but I’ve met as many men and women who have found new purpose in prison. One woman was in an abusive marriage for 16 years. She went online, met a guy, started seeing that guy on the side, and he turned out to be worse than her husband. So on one day she took them both out. She’s serving a double life sentence. She’ll never be paroled, ever. She went through Prison Fellowship’s academy and had an incredible transformation in Jesus Christ. She is now a high-impact counselor to the women in the current class and on a culture committee that’s chaired by the warden of the prison.

I’ve seen some transformations like that.

When I first went to prison, in maximum security to teach life skills, the assistant to the chaplain in the prison was a guy who had murdered his wife with his bare hands and was down for a life sentence in prison in Tennessee. Giant man with a beautiful heart, because after his conviction he met Jesus Christ and went through an incredible transformation.