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The role of nonprofits in the rehabilitation of prisoners.

The criminal justice system in America today is broken. Measured by its ability to rehabilitate prisoners and facilitate their successful reentry to society, it is by all accounts a failure. With the United States having the highest per capita incarceration rate of any country in the world and totally unacceptable rates of recidivism, virtually every neighborhood and every household is touched by incarceration. We have failed to balance justice with mercy by all but ignoring rehabilitation. Some offenders need to be locked up forever, and some will never change. But our criminal justice system is not based on that assumption alone. Indeed, on average, violent offenders serve only 49 months before they are released; offenders for all types of crimes serve an average 25 months. And once these prisoners are released, more than 50 percent of them will return to prison within three years.

We are poor stewards of taxpayer money if we basically ignore rehabilitation and thereby ensure continued high recidivism rates. There must be a renaissance of commitment to rehabilitation by everyone connected with the criminal justice system and most importantly by the nonprofit sector. The purpose of this essay is to suggest that the winds of change are blowing across fine face of America, stirring up a fresh commitment to the rehabilitation of prisoners and to suggest that nonprofits, not the government, should lead the way.

Although today I am the president of Prison Fellowship USA, a nonprofit holistic Christian ministry to prisoners and their children, for the first 47 of the 50 years of my life, l gave little thought to prisoners. I visited prison once to take part in a church service. As a lawyer l visited my clients in prison. As a state senator and then as attorney general of Virginia, I toured Virginia's prisons and supported legislation that was "tough on crime." I felt that those in prison belonged there, deserved to be there, and had no potential. Such a perspective has been common among citizens and policymakers. But I believe it is changing, perhaps more rapidly than we think.

At least four factors are driving this change. First, with two million people incarcerated in America today, we are reaching a tipping point in public opinion. Almost everyone has a friend or family member who is or has been in prison. It is no longer somebody else's problem. Second, government funding for increasing incarceration and recidivism rates has reached the saturation point. Third, in the last four years courageous efforts from conservative political leadership, most notably President George W. Bush, have put prisoner reentry initiatives and the mentoring of prisoners' children front and center on the political agenda. Such actions signal a departure from the traditional conservative approach of "lock 'era up and throw away the key." Fourth, a blossoming of primarily faith-based efforts, at both national and local levels, are leading thousands of volunteers in local churches to become involved in the lives of prisoners both in prison and as they reenter society.

Having served in the Virginia senate for ten years and as Virginia's attorney general for four, I know only too well that in times of fiscal stress, correctional budgets are the first to be cut. Within those budgets, rehabilitation and educational programs are the first and proportionally the deepest cuts that are made. That is not likely to change in the real-world competition for dollars. Even when state treasuries are bulging, these efforts historically receive relatively low priority because of demand in other "high profile" areas. But even if that changed overnight and prisoner rehabilitation and reentry became the number one priority of state governments, government agencies are by nature woefully incapable of rehabilitation that transforms.

Bureaucrats cannot deliver prisoner rehabilitation and reentry efforts. For starters, it is anything but a 9 to 5 job. Instead, such efforts must be delivered through a community of loving relationships that are patient, nurturing, sacrificial, holistic, and able to sustain a genuine long-term commitment to the welfare of prisoners and ex-prisoners. These efforts must be administered by those who believe that darkness can be overcome by light, evil by good, despair by hope, and addiction by freedom. They must be delivered by men and women who believe in hope and transformation even for those who have murdered, raped, beaten, stolen, kidnapped, and been bound by addictive behaviors. They must believe that in spite of, and precisely because of, their past, transformed prisoners and ex-prisoners are uniquely situated to contribute to society because they have experienced brokenness, forgiveness, and restoration.

Rehabilitation must focus on a transformation of the heart, dispositions, and character. It must equip prisoners with the knowledge and skills for productive work. It must be characterized not by a systems approach but by a relational (mentoring) approach. It must begin in prison and continue for up to two years after release from prison--a critical transitional stage. And since it cannot be provided primarily by the state, it must be provided by nonprofits, including churches.

A refocusing on the importance of rehabilitation is not "soft on crime," nor does it compromise public safety. I would not advocate such an emphasis if it did. Indeed, the state has a duty to protect the public, restore the victim, guard the treasury,, and ensure the safety of inmates in prison. A commitment to rehabilitation is consistent with each of these goals; correspondingly, a failure to provide rehabilitation compromises each one of them. For without rehabilitative efforts that transform, inmates are more of a threat upon release than when they were sentenced, more victims are created, more taxpayer money is spent for the same thing over and over again, and inmates are at a greater risk of violence and criminal corruption in prison. Such an understanding is leading to public support of bold new initiatives in rehabilitation and a willingness to become personally involved in this community-based effort.

The partnership between governments and nonprofits for purposes of rehabilitation and reentry are not new. What is new is the large-scale interest developing among nonprofits, the explosion of interest among faith-based nonprofits, and the willingness of nonprofits to spend their own money as opposed to government grants. Indeed, the renaissance in rehabilitation spearheaded by nonprofits need not be fueled by government funds. Some limited application of grants may be helpful in developing prototypes and has been instrumental in the start of some new programs, but in the long run the prison population is too large and the needs in rehabilitation too intensely relational to be realistically supported by the government. This can and should be a movement largely sustained by the fuel of philanthropy, and the correctional system must welcome and adapt to the partnership.

The objection, of course, from some secularists will be that religion has no place in this endeavor. But it is not their choice. It is the choice of the prisoner. And in the prisons of America today, there is a deep and abiding interest in things spiritual. So long as prisoners have freedom of religion and so long as they wish to pursue a changed life through their faith, they should be allowed to take advantage of the resources available. Rehabilitation, successful reentry into society, and reduced recidivism rates are long accepted goals of government. Nonprofits, faith-based or not, that can provide a service that meets these goals should be allowed to do so. Particularly in the arena of aftercare or reentry, nonprofits and specifically faith-based nonprofits in the form of local churches are uniquely well suited to engage in rehabilitative and reentry efforts.

If the external forces sparking an attitude change in society at large are the high incarceration rate, state budget woes, and a shift in conservatives' approach to crime, what then is internally fueling the faith-based nonprofit efforts? What is the internal motivation for specifically Christian nonprofits to take the lead in prisoner rehabilitation and transformation?

To answer that, one must understand the nature of the Church. The Church is a community of people who have experienced the brokenness of self-centeredness and the subsequent wholeness that results from being restored to fellowship with a forgiving, loving God, who created them for that very purpose. It also views itself as a community existing not merely with the inward purpose of self-renewal or transformation, but for the purpose of loving one's neighbor. The Church is a community whose founder Jesus expected it to be His earthly presence to the world around them--His encouraging words, His healing hands, His load-bearing shoulders, His traveling feet, and His consecrated mind. Though the Church in America today is caricatured often as a result of its own failings--as a bombastic moralist, it is at its root formed as a servant in pursuit of the best interests of its neighbor and willing to suffer in the role of placing others before self.

The specific motivation to champion the cause of the prisoner comes primarily from two sources. First, the Hebrew Scriptures consistently show God as standing on the side of those who have no advocate--the prisoner, the orphan, the widow, the poor, the oppressed, and the sojourner in the land. Second, the Gospels show Jesus reemphasizing this value by telling His followers that they will be judged by their commitment to the poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. Indeed, He tells them that if they reach out to one of these, they are reaching out to Him. These are themes and values that churches are rediscovering in significant numbers. It is not surprising then, that churches are increasingly moving into the prisons of America, which are littered with broken lives looking for a message and a model of forgiveness, love, and hope.

Let me give just one significant example. In four prisons across the U.S, Prison Fellowship has developed and staffs a program called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, which immerses prisoners in a values-based environment taught from a biblical perspective. The in-prison portion--which addresses academics, life-skills training, spiritual development, and job preparation--is followed by several months of post-prison support to ensure that released prisoners have the best opportunity to successfully reintegrate into society. For each program, hundreds of volunteers from local churches are recruited and trained to work with and mentor the ex-prisoners.

Based on records for Prison Fellowship's fiscal year ended in June 2004, of the 909 program participants (from all four prisons) who have been released from prison so far, 90 percent have mentors, 86 percent are involved with a church community, and 85 percent are gainfully employed. In a 2002 University of Pennsylvania study that focused on the Texas program--the one in operation the longest--researchers found that of those prisoners who completed the entire program, only 8 percent were reincarcerated within a two-year period.

David Russell is one of those "success stories." David has described his first stint in prison as the state's "attempt at rehabilitation--where all I learned was how to do my crime a little better so I wouldn't get caught." His second imprisonment--when he participated in the InnerChange Freedom Initiative--he calls a time of "transformation: changing the heart" through a faith relationship.

Because of prisoners like David Russell, nonprofits must be allowed to operate within and alongside the prison system. States must allow for innovation and experimentation with the guidelines of ensuring public safety. There will be success and failures along the way, but the system cannot get worse than it is at present unless we do nothing but continue the status quo. The government should not forfeit its role in certain aspects of the rehabilitative process, but the correctional system is unable to provide the web of human nurture and love necessary to effect life-changing transformation in the lives of prisoners. To be successful, such community-based nonprofits must be motivated by love for their fellow man and a deep-rooted conviction that life transformation is possible and is worthy of individual and community sacrifice. Many if not most of the nonprofits stepping up to the plate are faith-based, others are not. But all should be welcome insofar as their methodology and purposes are not contrary to public policy and public safety, and all should be held accountable for results.

Mark L. Earley is the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship. Prior to his arrival at Prison Fellowship, Mr. Earley served as the attorney general of Virginia. Prison Fellowship was founded by former Nixon aide Charles Colson in 1976 and has become the world's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Author:Earley, Mark L.
Publication:Criminal Justice Ethics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Words:2084
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