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The Department of Justice's annual report on the U.S. prison population brings to light some alarming statistics on the state of the criminal justice system. According to the July report, the number of people under the supervision of the corrections system – whether on parole, probation, or incarcerated – reached almost 6.9 million in 2003. This is the highest total in the history of the United States and represents about 3.2 percent of the nation's population.

These figures follow on the heels of the June 23 report by an American Bar Association (ABA) commission, in response to a call by Supreme Court Justice Kennedy in his speech at the 2003 ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco. Justice Kennedy focused on the “inadequacies – and the injustices – in our prison and correctional systems,” and implored the ABA to fashion a report addressing these issues.

The sheer numbers of persons locked up in America attest to the inadequacies of the criminal justice system. Incarcerated citizens represent a terrible instance of failed potential – economically, socially, and morally. Able adults who are behind bars cannot contribute to the economy by using their God-given talents creatively. They cannot build up civil society by participating in social networks and supporting families. Their possibilities for doing good are constrained, because they have chosen to do bad in the past.

And there are even more concrete negative economic considerations associated with the growing costs of incarcerating a growing population of prisoners. Along with more prisoners comes more cost, and as the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports, from 1982 to 2001, expenditures in the criminal justice system skyrocketed (expenditures for police up 281 percent; corrections, up 529 percent; judicial, up 383 percent).

Some Proposed Solutions

Given these rising numbers, a number of legislators are rallying in support of the Second Chance Act of 2004 (H.R. 4676). This legislation is partly aimed at better equipping and involving community-based organizations in the process of reintegrating ex-inmates into society. This act focuses primarily on funding state and local governments, but to the extent that it begins to reckon with private groups, it represents a step in the right direction.

The Second Chance Act of 2004 is in agreement with the ABA commission report, as both do well to acknowledge the critical role that institutions other than the government can play in combating the scourge of crime in American society.

Among the recommendations that the ABA commission makes along these lines, and that are picked up in the legislation, is that the criminal justice system should “establish community partnerships that include corrections and police officers, prosecutors, and community representatives committed to promoting successful reentry into the community and that measure their performance by the overall success of reentry.”

This recommendation agrees with the position of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, who at their annual conference in June adopted a resolution (PDF) to create a “national re-entry consortium” to bring together government and religious leaders to help people leaving prison readjust to society.

Valuing Community Organizations

Such public and private partnerships have too often been overlooked by government officials as effective methods of reducing the reentry rate for those who have been imprisoned. According to the Justice Department, 38 percent of those on parole in 2003 were returned to incarceration with a new sentence or because of a parole violation, and some nine percent were on the run from the law.

That the government's attempts to reform criminal offenders are so often futile should be no real surprise, given that the role of the state in response to criminal activity is primarily to enact just punishment. This is in accord with the Apostle Paul's description of the duties of the civil magistrate. Paul writes that the ruler is “God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4 NIV). By its very nature, the state relies on coercive force to punish evil, and it is the fear of this punishment that functions as the primary deterrent for a person to refrain from evil activity.

Thus, the use of coercive force has limited effectiveness, mostly because it works as an external discouragement, and cannot address the internal orientation of the human person to evil. This is especially apparent when the perceived reward for criminal activity is high compared to a relatively low risk (of capture, punishment, or death). This is one of the reasons why so many youths get caught up in the drug trade, because the street price and profitability of drug dealing for many outweighs the risk of imprisonment or death.

While the state exerts external coercive force to punish crime, faith-based community groups are able to address the internal spiritual issues at the core of evil activity. Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries is just one example of many organizations that focus on effectively ministering to prisoners. Because these community groups are private and not subject to the restrictions binding government agencies, they are able to engage prisoners on a personal and spiritual level, focusing on the needs of the whole human person, body and soul.

This comprehensive approach is much more effective at discouraging recidivism among inmates. A 1997 study of Prison Fellowship Bible Studies in the state of New York found that “inmates who attended 10 or more PF Bible studies in a year were nearly three times less likely to be re-arrested during 12 months after release.” Specifically with regard to re-arrest, “Only 14 percent of those who attended at least 10 PF Bible studies in a year were rearrested, compared with 41 percent of the non-PF group.” These numbers are significant, because there is such a dramatic gap in recidivism and because such results have been reinforced time and again, study after study.

The activities of faith-based organizations like Prison Fellowship Ministries are necessary complements to the state's enforcement of criminal punishments. In order to effectively address the future of those who have committed crimes, government officials and politicians must continue to increase their recognition of the critical role these private institutions play in the reform of criminals and the contribution to a healthy and vibrant society.


Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute where he also serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality.