WASHINGTON – As Congress jostles and wrestles with one another over how to best spend billions of tax dollars to resuscitate the economy, a prison ministry approached the government with ideas on how to not spend and instead save billions.
Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship, moderated a panel discussion hosted by the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security on Tuesday that examined how community-based re-entry programs are significantly more cost-effective and successful in keeping ex-inmates out of prison.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Americans will spend $62 billion this year to incarcerate those who break the law. Some 700,000 inmates, in the mean time, will be released from prison. But within three years, more than half of the inmates released will be re-incarcerated with an average cost of $24,000 per inmate.
In comparison, community supervision and re-entry prevention programs costs $1,500 to $2,000 per person a year.
"In the community, they have jobs, are paying taxes, they're helping to support their families and paying part of the bill for their supervision," Nolan pointed out to The Christian Post during an interview on Wednesday. "So it just makes total sense to emphasize the re-entry portion and helping to get them back on their feet."
Nolan highlights that only eight percent of graduates of Prison Fellowship's InnerChange Freedom Initiative program – a full-time in prison program that continues to work with the men and women after they are released back to their community – return to prison, compared to the national figure of more than 50 percent.
However, the U.S. government for the past 20 years has spent 90 percent of correction funds on the prison side and only 10 percent on re-entry prevention programs, the prison ministry leader pointed out.
Nolan says the problem that the government faces when trying to reduce prison re-entry is that by nature the government cannot love people. But what these offenders need is someone to love them, he believes.
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"If we're going to change these folks we got to show them that we truly love them as brothers in Christ and that we're there for them," Nolan said.
The prison ministry combines strict accountability with love and support, he explained.
"The answer to them stumbling is not to send them back to prison for five years, it is instead to say, 'Hey, you need to get your head straight and get back on the straight and narrow,'" the prison ministry leader said.
Mentors are paired up with ex-offenders living in the community to help them think through strategies on how to kick bad habits and provide them with a "moral compass" so they can make good choices.
"Without the mentors, generally it is just the government uncaring that says, 'You messed up, back to prison,' which is very expensive and frankly doesn't do anything to change their behavior or teach them new patterns," Nolan said.
He criticizes the high re-incarceration rate as a "revolving door" that is expensive and doesn't help protect civilians.
Last year, Texas reformed its correction system to focus more on community correction and it was able to eliminate plans to build three new prisons while making the community safer, Nolan mentioned.
Others on Tuesday's panel discussion shared the problems ex-inmates face when returning to life outside of prison, including finding housing. They also discussed how organizations are helping to get ex-offenders back on their feet.
Panelist Doug Burris, chief U.S. probation officer in the eastern district of Missouri, highlighted the work of some local churches that are teaching ex-inmates how to dress appropriately for job interviews and are even supplying the suit if needed.
"To a lot of these offenders they had never had anybody in their life that just loved them for them, and it takes awhile for it to sink in that these people who are strangers to them love them," Nolan said.
"And why? Because they see the Jesus in them that they carry the image of God as all of us do. And that it is such a new message to these people, and it's such a blessing to know that they're loved."