Chuck Colson's Passion: Prison Reform

It has been a year since Chuck Colson passed to his Heavenly reward. All of us at Prison Fellowship miss him dearly.

It was 38 years ago that Chuck walked out the prison gates. He promised the other prisoners that he would not forget them, and he didn't. He founded Prison Fellowship, and called on the Church to join him in ministering to prisoners and their families. What he had seen behind prison walls profoundly changed his views on crime and punishment. He spoke movingly of the awful conditions in prisons, particularly the hopelessness he had found inside.

As Colson and Prison Fellowship volunteers spread the Gospel in prisons, Chuck felt compelled to speak out about the conditions in which the inmates were confined, about what was happening to their families while they were locked up, what happened to them when they were released, and the injustices he had seen.

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Chuck was alarmed at the rapid expansion of the number of Americans behind bars. In 1975, when Colson was released from prison, there were close to 250,000 federal and state prisoners. Now, there are 1.6 million – six times as many. This is more than any other country in the world. With only 5% of the world's population, we have nearly 25% of the prisoners.

A substantial percentage of these additional prisoners are low risk offenders. This is a waste of both money and of human potential. We can hold most non-dangerous offenders accountable without locking them up. Prisons are for people who we are afraid of, but they hold far too many people we are just mad at.

Prison expansion deserves partial credit for the drop in crime in our country since its peak in the early 1990s. But the number of prisoners has continued to rise well past the point of diminishing returns, where more and more prison cells buy us less and less crime control.

Why do we have so many of our people in prison? Former Senator and Navy Secretary Jim Webb opined that "Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the US, or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice." The obvious answer is that our justice system is in need of reform.

There is good news on this front. In the past few years, several states have established policies and programs that ensure dangerous and habitual criminals are behind bars and steer lower-level offenders to prison alternatives, such as drug courts and day reporting centers. The best initiatives combine the carrot and the stick, offering rehabilitation programs but also imposing swift and certain sanctions when offenders test positive for drug use or break other rules of supervision. There has been bi-partisan support for these reforms, with solid research provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts' Public Safety Performance Project.

These reforms are already having an impact: after nearly four decades of explosive growth, the prison population in the U.S. has dropped for the second year in a row. And despite locking up fewer people, the crime rate nationally and in reform states like Texas has continued to drop.

It is noteworthy that much of the leadership for the reform effort has come from a growing movement among conservatives that offers alternatives to our current criminal justice policies. The driving force in this conservative effort has been Right on Crime, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Prison Fellowship Ministries. I am one of the signatories of the Right on Crime Statement of Principles, which proposes sensible reforms that have proven effective. Right on Crime has attracted the support of many prominent conservatives, such as Ed Meese, Newt Gingrich, Tony Perkins, Grover Norquist, Gary Bauer, Ralph Reed, and William Bennett.

Chuck Colson was proud to be an early supporter of the Right on Crime effort. He knew the reforms fit with the policies he advocated since he walked out the prison gates. And he knew those policies would make our communities safer, with fewer victims. That is both right on crime and smart on crime.

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