The revolving door

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Fact and fiction about grace for criminals

By Carl Alzen –

revolvingdoorA little more than 150 years ago, the faith communities in the United States contributed to a radical change in the popular understanding of criminals and their punishment. Instead of viewing those who had committed various crimes as hopeless cases of men and women eternally lost in their sinful and criminal behavior, the public was encouraged to see them as children of God who had stumbled.

Out of this shift in thinking came a new approach to the jail and prison system in America that instead of punishment and revenge, the focus should be on rehabilitation and corrections.

Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. We keep more individuals in our jails and prisons than China, Russia, Cuba, Iran and/or Iraq. Each day over 2.3 million men and women live, eat and sleep behind bars in our country, with an additional 3 million under some kind of community supervision.

And simultaneously, the U.S. also has the highest level of recidivism in the world. Of those released from some kind of legal custody, 60-75 percent will return to custody again within three years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Just what can be done?

“Get tough on crime.” Harsher treatment, mandatory sentencing, more time for all kinds of crime, “three strikes and you are out,” and so on.

The hope is obviously that a tough attitude toward crime and criminals will deter anyone from acting out their criminal impulses and leave the rest of us alone.

I was a chaplain with the Arizona Department of Corrections for 20 years and have worked in this area with The Salvation Army since my retirement in 2014. I have seen that while the intent may be good in that tough on crime stance, the concept is fictional. So, let us ponder a few basic facts:

  1. There is no clear correlation between harsher treatment, length of sentences and a diminishing crime rate.
  2. The absolute majority of our inmates are not serving life long sentences, but will be released within four years. After that, they will be our new neighbors—and what kind of neighbors do we want?
  3. Crime is bad and should be punished, but “just” punishing a criminal without giving him or her a way out of the correctional system will create another case of a hopeless repeat offender.
  4. To go to prison and stay in prison is simple; to return to a life “in freedom” is difficult—finding a job, a place to stay, reconnecting with family….every molehill becomes a huge mountain.
  5. In a justifiable wish to stand up for the victims of crime, we sometimes return to the old thinking of revenge instead of rehabilitation. While this is understandable, we need to remember that this serves no other purpose than to “tickle my own feelings” of anger. It certainly does not help those who have been victimized by different acts of crime, and it does not affect the perpetrators in a specific way. Likewise, the community at large does not benefit from this thinking but has to pay for it (up to $65,000 each year for every inmate).
  6. There is a way out of this nightmare, and this is where the faith communities in our nation can be the agents of change: An inmate that has been given the opportunity to receive firm and patient faith based counseling before and after release is much less likely to return to a criminal pattern of acting and thinking upon return into the community, according to studies by Prison Fellowship.

Make no mistake, we are not “just” talking about traditional “teaching and preaching” behind the bars of jails and prisons. While there certainly still is room (and true appreciation) for this kind of traditional prison ministry, we have to remember that the mentoring part is the critical component in a successful and truly rehabilitative prison ministry. After all, it is a sobering fact that inmates that claim to be “born again Christians” are returning to custody as frequently as inmates that claim no faith at all. Without the support that firm and loving mentoring can give, the journey into freedom is simply too complicated and filled with too many temptations and obstacles for a “newborn Christian” to handle on his or her own.

Are we as Christians willing to face the responsibility to become the agents of transformation and change in our correctional system? Or do we really have a choice? After all, our sisters and brothers behind bars are members of the body of Christ. If one part of our body hurts, we hurt all over. If one part of our body is honored, the whole body will be happy (1 Cor. 12:26).

The Salvation Army in the Southwest has just begun to partner with other churches and with individuals to provide the tools of success to inmates preparing to be released back into the community, and to train pre- and post-release mentors for inmates.

Are you willing to join our team of transformation and grace?

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