For nearly 35 years, Prison Fellowship has partnered with churches across the country to bring the transforming power of the Gospel behind bars. We’ve seen thousands upon thousands of men and women turn their backs on crime and embrace salvation and reconciliation through Jesus Christ.
But during that time, we’ve witnessed another phenomenon: the spectacular growth in our nation’s prison population. Since I founded Prison Fellowship in 1976, the country’s prison population has risen from 300,000 to more than 1.5 million. Add in jail inmates, and we have a staggering 2.3 million people behind bars.
But that is only the tip of the iceberg. According to a recently released study by the Pew Foundation, one in 31 Americans—that’s 7.3 million of us—are either in prison, in jail, or on probation or parole. Just 25 years ago, that figure was only 1 in 77.
If there’s a silver lining to this bad news, it’s this: The Pew study couldn’t have come at a better time. For years, Justice Fellowship, the criminal justice reform arm of Prison Fellowship, has urged states to find other ways to punish offenders—especially nonviolent ones—besides simply warehousing them in prison.
Justice Fellowship has promoted reforms like restitution, community service, and victim-offender reconciliation, not only to reduce the surging prison populations, but also as a matter of biblical justice, of restoring peace to the community and healing to victims of crime.
Now, with the nation’s economic crisis, states are struggling to pay for their massive prison systems. As the Pew report shows, corrections costs have grown by 300 percent over the past 20 years. “Today,” Pew reports, “corrections imposes a national taxpayer burden of $68 billion a year.” But “despite this increased spending, recidivism rates have remained largely unchanged.”
In other words, the states and the federal government have no choice but to look for alternatives.
I’m thrilled that the Pew study went beyond reporting numbers and recommended approaches that will make a difference. One key recommendation was basing “intervention programs on sound research about what works to reduce recidivism.”
Which is exactly what Prison Fellowship created when it started the faith-based InnerChange Freedom Initiative. Sound research, in the form of a study by the University of Pennsylvania, showed that only 8 percent of IFI graduates in Texas wound up back in prison after two years. That’s an astonishing rate, when compared to the national average of 50 percent after three years.
And now, with federal funds being released under the Second Chance Act, non-profits and faith-based organizations will be able to help inmates make a successful return to the community. As Justice Fellowship’s Pat Nolan points out, “Those dollars are a great bargain because they will help non-profits and faith-based groups assist returning prisoners, turning people who were a burden on the taxpayers into contributing members of society. That means fewer victims and safer neighborhoods.”
And that, after all, should be the goal of every corrections system.