The National Academy for Sciences released a study that found that since the 1970s the incarceration rate in the United States has more than quadrupled after remaining flat the previous 50 years. The report states, “The growth in incarceration rates in the United States over the past 40 years is historically unprecedented and internationally unique.”
This population explosion in the prison system matters to us at the Chuck Colson Center because Colson founded Prison Fellowship Ministries to reach the prisoners. He noticed the prison population was growing. It was one of his anecdotes that he would talk about each time he spoke. When he got out of prison back in the 1970s, U.S. prisons held about 200,000 inmates. Today, that number is more than 2 million.
He would often ask, why is that the case? Why are so many more people going to prison? Really, there were two answers to that question. A group of Jewish researchers—secularists, not believers at all—looked at the causes of crime and quickly dismissed all the typical culprits of poverty and lack of education. They agreed that crime was the result of lack of moral training in the morally formative years. That’s exactly what Colson would talk about, the moral breakdown of society.
The other reason has to do with what we think crime actually is. One of the reasons we’re incarcerating so many more people is we have this idea that we should incarcerate anyone who does something wrong to get them off the streets. It’s almost like we incarcerate people we’re mad at, whom we just want to get back at. This stems from a failure to realize who is the victim of crime. If the state is the victim of crime, if the social order is the victim of crime, then the answer is to incarcerate everybody. That’s really what we’ve done in the war on drugs and almost everything else. But if the victim of crime is another person, then we have to realize it’s not the state that’s been offended, it’s someone else.
That realization led Colson to develop this idea of restorative justice. There’s a better way to do prison; there’s a better way to do reform. There’s a better way to help a reformed prisoner or renewed prisoner back into neighborhoods. The question is not, how do we get rid of bad people? It’s, how do we return good people from prison? But that hasn’t been part of the conversation.
Colson will go down as one of the great prison reformers in history because he asked that question, and he had some great success. If we didn’t have this strict separation of church and state trying to keep God out of the prisons, the success that Prison Fellowship and other groups like it have had would spread to other prisons, and we’d see a dramatic drop in the population.
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