Christians and Criminal Justice
- Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Last month, Mark Earley told “BreakPoint” listeners and readers about a New York Times story on Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative®. He pointed out important facts that were missing from the story and concluded that the Times had not lived up to its motto, “All the news that’s fit to print.”
Having criticized the Times when it got things wrong, it’s only fair to point out when it gets it right.
In his December 24 article in the New York Times Magazine called “The Right Has a Jailhouse Conversion,” writer Chris Suellentrop described what he called “an odd and surprising change in the politics of crime.” A decade ago, get-tough-on-crime commercials featuring “ominous” stories about “prisoners and ex-prisoners” were a staple of political campaigns.
This time around, however, the issue “barely received any notice at all.” Why? In large part, he says, because fixing our broken criminal justice system is — thanks to concerned Christians, particularly Prison Fellowship — increasingly a bipartisan project.
An example of this “surprising change” is the proposed “Second Chance Act.” Among its goals is encouraging states to “re-examine any laws and regulations that make it unreasonably difficult for ex-offenders to reintegrate themselves into their communities.” While the act is, in the Times’s words, “a small bill,” what it represents is much larger: “For the first time in decades, Congress is poised to pass a bill that aims to make the lives of prisoners and ex-prisoners easier, not more difficult.”
I’ve spent four decades around politics and three decades going into prisons and advocating these very reforms, often before hostile legislatures. Believe me when I tell you that this article is right: A lot of hard work is paying off, and a profound shift has begun in the way we think about crime and those who commit it.
While the shift may be surprising, what shouldn’t be a surprise is that this shift is being led by conservative Christians. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), who has spent several nights in the prisons we run in Kansas and just spent a night in the Angola prison in Louisiana in order to draw attention to the issue, has made true rehabilitation one of his campaign issues. Other Christian legislators, such as Mike Pence (R-Ind.), are among the Second Chance Act’s supporters.
The Times not only noted the role that Christians play, it also vouched for their motives. It said that, and I quote, “the Christian desire to improve the lives of prisoners is more than a mere proxy for evangelism.”
As proof, it cited the example of Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley. As a member of the Virginia legislature and later Attorney General, Mark spent “most of [his] time . . . working on how to put more people in jail and keeping them there longer”—not for crass political motives, but because he thought it was in the public interest.
Then, while studying Scripture, Mark noticed the way that God used men with checkered pasts for His purposes. He realized that “if Moses or Paul had lived in Virginia . . . they would be serving . . . a multiple-decade prison sentence.”
This realization changed the way he thought about prisoners and led him to tell the Congressional Black Caucus: “I was wrong.”
This kind of Christian leadership has helped to create what one criminologist called “the best opportunity of the last 25 years” for changing the American criminal justice system. That’s a story I’m glad the Times saw fit to print.
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