Restoring Dignity to Criminal Justice

When he signed the 1994 Crime Bill, then-President Bill Clinton called it the "toughest and smartest crime bill in our history."

Since then, the violent crime rate has dropped, but it's not clear that the Crime Bill is responsible. A number of changes -- including improvements in policing, the waning of the crack epidemic, and the aging of America -- also play a part. What is clear is that the crime bill has helped put 2.3 million men and women behind bars, and with millions more on probation or parole, we are the world's leaders in locking people up.

Why should we care if more criminals are behind bars for longer sentences? As president of the nation's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families, I've seen the downsides of mass incarceration up close. People who could safely be returned to the community remain behind bars for years -- at a hefty cost to taxpayers. The 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent are the most at-risk children in America, subject to depression, anxiety, poverty, home instability, substance abuse, and gang involvement. And the lack of rehabilitative programming leaves the 700,000 prisoners released every year prone to commit new crimes, which means more victims.

Like a football coach who fine-tunes his game plan at halftime, it's time to introduce a more pro-active crime prevention strategy. Without compromising the public-safety gains of the last 20 years, we can focus on bringing good people home -- not just keeping those who break the law locked up indefinitely.

Every day, former prisoners can and do come home completely renewed and restored, prepared to help build safer communities, and actually be part of the solution to crime. For examples, I need look no farther than my friend Edwin, who came out of prison to build a successful business in Michigan that employs other ex-prisoners, or Tish, a former addict who became a model mother and addiction recovery counselor, and Chuck Colson, who founded Prison Fellowship after serving time in a federal prison. There are countless others.

We can help create more success stories -- and safer communities -- through policies that respect the human dignity of each life, recognizing that "criminals" are not a monolithic group of monsters. They are people, capable of choosing to change and contribute. Some people who commit crimes will choose not to change, and in the interest of public safety, they need to be separated from society. But for those who can be restored, and have paid their debt to society, shouldn't a second chance be possible?

There are many ways to respect human dignity in the criminal justice system without putting the public at risk. Drug courts, mental health courts, and veterans' courts address the needs of populations best served outside the main criminal justice system, and they do it more cheaply and effectively. By dealing with the complex issues beneath many crimes, like addiction, mental illness, and post-combat trauma, alternative courts help keep new crimes from occurring. The nation's first veterans' court, in Buffalo, New York, had a zero percent recidivism rates in its first few years -- none of its participants committed a new crime. Alternative courts -- aiming for rehabilitation instead of incarceration -- are springing up in states across the country.

Within the corrections environment, let's bring prisons back to their morally rehabilitative purpose. Prison Fellowship and other volunteer-driven organizations provide proven programming behind bars, addressing criminal thinking and behavior at the root. Innovative corrections officials, like Louisiana's Warden Burl Cain, can also create environments that support life transformation without compromising safety.

And we need a reentry environment that allows those who have served their time to make a new start. At the federal level, the Second Chance Reauthorization Act, now making its way through Congress, would extend programs that help returning citizens re-integrate into the community through partnerships with state and local government as well as faith- and community-based organizations. Just a couple of initiatives receiving grants from the Second Chance Act include a Texas program for gang-affiliated teenagers, which is helping them stay out of jail (Kathleen A. Fox, Vincent J. Webb, Alejandro Ferrer, Charles M. Katz, and Eric Hedberg, Gang Intervention Treatment Re-Entry Development for Youth (GITREDY): A Report on the First Year of Implementation (Huntsville, TX: Sam Houston State University, 2012), and a mentoring program for mothers being released in Oklahoma, which had a 98-percent success rate at keeping women from returning to prison over a 12-month period (figures are as of September 2013. Recidivism is defined as a return to Oklahoma Department of Corrections custody).

There are many ways to keep us safe. Our representatives need to know that we support proven alternatives to mass incarceration that help restore individuals, families, and communities. When President Clinton signed the Crime Bill, he commented, "This is about freedom. Without responsibility, without order, without lawfulness, there is no freedom." I would add that there is no freedom without respect for the dignity of each human being. It's time for that respect to be enshrined in the criminal justice system, for all our sakes.