Criminal Justice Reform

Strengthening Families through Effective Criminal Justice Reforms

Growing up in a Christian family, I was raised by parents who instilled in me Christian values. Among those values were working hard, conducting myself with integrity, being honest, treating others the way that I wanted to be treated, and being kind, compassionate, and generous to those less fortunate. 

As a conservative, those same values have guided my politics throughout my life, and it is those same values that compel me to write this article today. 

I can’t think about those less fortunate in this country without thinking about those who have become a part of our criminal justice system, as well as those around them. My values demand that I seek justice for those who are wronged, and the Bible says in Exodus that in cases of serious injury, the offender should pay an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. Bearing the consequences for our actions is an area where many of us agree. 

That same Bible also says in Hebrews that we should remember those in prison, as if we were in prison with them. These two passages show the character of God. It is a character that includes justice on one hand, and mercy on the other. This is a concept that is all too easy to forget today. We have become a society that is heavy on justice, and light on mercy. 

I say none of this to suggest that we should be any less just, but rather to say that we should approach those who have done wrong with compassion, realizing that they should not be forever defined by their worst moment in life. 

It is also important that we don’t forget others who are impacted when one of our fellow citizens is incarcerated. It isn’t just the offender who is impacted, it is the child raised without a parent, the mother growing old without her child, the spouse, trying to do it all on their own, and society, who bears the financial burden of incarceration, correction, and associated costs that go along with that. It is also the workforce that loses a potential laborer. 

There is much room for improvement in our current justice system. As an organization, the Christian Coalition is focused on 3 main areas: prevention, correction, and reintegration. 

When talking about prevention, it is necessary to look at the root issues that cause a person to turn to a life of crime. From a societal perspective, there are a number of things that could cause this. It could be poor role models, it could be poverty and desperation, it could be addiction, and almost always, it involves a lack of education. 

Those who are best educated realize that life is full of legitimate opportunities for advancement, and that it is unnecessary to turn to crime to create a better circumstance for ourselves. It is crucial that we educate our youth about the opportunities that exist for them, and that we insure that all kids have access to a quality education. 

For those who do end up offending, we owe it to them, to the taxpayers footing the bill for our corrections system, and to have a system in place that truly works in a corrective fashion. For too many, the time in prison is idle time, and does not lead to behavioral correction. For those who committed crimes to feed an addiction, we need to have a treatment plan to address addiction. For those who are suffering from mental illness, we must have a plan to address that as well. If we aren’t getting to the root of the problem, we are wasting both time and money, and are likely to see the same offenders re-enter the system down the road. 

Programs that educate and encourage a path from incarceration to the workplace should be incentivized and encouraged. The idle time spent in prison could be better used gaining useful life skills that are likely to lead to meaningful employment upon re-entry into society. 

This leads us to the third priority; reintegration. In our efforts to punish crime, we may have been a little overzealous over the years and created some significant barriers to re-entry. While there are many, I will only address a few here.  

One of the most obvious barriers has become known simply as the box. On most job applications, there is a box that asks if the applicant has ever been convicted of a felony. Applicants who check this box are all too often screened out of the application process before ever getting a chance to explain what happened. They are forever defined by their worst moments. 

While that is a fair question for an employer to ask, requiring that it be asked during an interview, and not on an application gives the applicant the chance to offer an explanation, and gives them a fighting chance at finding a meaningful job. Employers who have voluntarily banned the box have reported that offenders who have been given a second chance at life have been some of their most productive employees. 

Another barrier is the laws relating to professional licensing. This type of legislation prevents someone who may have committed a crime 20 years ago from obtaining a license to become a cosmetologist, or an insurance agent, or any other career that requires a professional license. Eliminating opportunities for employment only increases the chances that a former prisoner will reoffend. Often, the crime for which they were convicted has nothing to do with the license they are seeking, and if we genuinely believe that an offenders debt to society is paid, we shouldn’t forever stamp them with a “scarlet letter”. 

Housing is another area for concern. When a former prisoner is released, they often reenter society with almost no money, few friends, no support network, and no job. This often leads them to the worst neighborhoods, including neighborhoods that are unsafe. As a former felon, some states prohibit them from voting, limiting their opportunities to improve their local government. They are also prohibited from owning a firearm, even if their crime was not violent, and therefore are unable to protect themselves, or their family in these troubled neighborhoods. Some choose to obtain protection illegally, and thus end up violating parole, and returning to prison. It is a cycle that continues to perpetuate itself, and if we ever want it to end, we need to consider meaningful reforms. 

I appreciate the upbringing that I was privileged to have, and the opportunities that it presented to me. I also recognize that there are many who don’t have the same opportunities that I did. My upbringing dictates that I should look at these situations with compassion, and not just as a bystander, but in a way that seeks to make a meaningful difference. There are certainly bad people in the world, but I recognize that there are also good people, who made bad mistakes. As I reflect on what the Bible teaches about redemption, I can’t help but see all the ways that we often treat those who have committed crimes as unredeemable, and I am thrilled to see the Christian Coalition lending its voice to changing that narrative. I hope that you will join us. 

Keith den Hollander - National Field Director Christian Coalition

 

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The Freedom of Redemption

“Forgiveness – it will clear the bitterness away, it can even set a prisoner free, there is no end to what its power can do”.  These lyrics, from singer Matthew West, touch on a central principle of Christianity – redemption.  We all require redemption.  Sometimes we stumble from grace and other times we fall from it.  Regardless, we are taught to forgive, to take responsibility for our transgressions, and to break the cycle of harmful activity.  As the drug scourge continues to ravage our state, we must become effective on crime.  Through the application of Christian principles, it is possible to reform our criminal justice system in a way that is fair and just.

We achieve this lofty goal by educating our children, rehabilitating those already in the prison system, and reintegrating those who have served their penance into our communities.  This will create a stronger community, with more productive members of society, and more parents involved in the lives of their children.  This will save lives and ensure that Ohio does not remain second in the nation in overdose deaths.

When it comes to educating our children about the ruinous culture of drugs and violence, a dollar invested in education and prevention pays dividends for taxpayers.  By instilling values of responsibility and hard work in the lives of our children, we prepare them for adulthood and provide valuable mentorship opportunities.  The Start Talking! initiative, launched by Governor John Kasich, has given “parents, guardians, educators, and community leaders the tools to start the conversation with Ohio’s youth”.  These discussions may start at school or during an extracurricular activity, but the conversations must be continued by parents at home and faith leaders in the community.  We all have a responsibility to keep our community safe.  Whether it be at our kitchen tables, our churches, or our halls of government: together, we can quell the culture of violence and drug abuse. 

Apart from education, we should effectively distribute and address responsibility.  Too often, we place blame solely on the person who abuses drugs when, in fact, a majority of drug addicts were originally prescribed addictive drugs by a medical professional.  Even if an addict did not have a medical condition and made a regrettable choice, it is time to place an increased emphasis on finding, and stopping, the person who supplied the drug.  By focusing on shutting down criminal channels of distribution and halting the liberal prescription of painkillers, we will cut off the free-flowing supply of drugs.

To focus exclusively on prevention, however, is a mistake.  Through the leadership of Senator Rob Portman, the Second Chance Act and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act are providing rehabilitative opportunities for those incarcerated.  This legislation provides medical treatment to combat the disease of addiction and mental health issues while offering educational opportunities.  Inmates are being shown forgiveness while being granted a chance at redemption.

Rehabilitative measures, such as in-prison treatment or drug courts, dramatically cut costs to taxpayers while creating a more effective criminal justice system.  These innovative programs can save taxpayers more than $10,000 on a single case.  Instead of a prison sentence, offenders enter a program that gives them hope to turn around their lives.

Only one in four who enter the prison system ever leave.  Prison populations are rapidly increasing due to the drug epidemic while our working population is decreasing.  In recent remarks at the White House, President Donald Trump called for job training, mentorship, and treatment to break the cycle of recidivism and to reintegrate law-abiding citizens into our society.  President Trump renewed this call in his State of the Union address as he called for America to “help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance”.     

As America faces a potential labor shortage, it is in our national interest to minimize barriers of reintegration through a free market approach, led by public/private partnerships.  A national success story can be found here in Columbus.  Hot Chicken Takeover, a restaurant startup, has quickly grown to over 200 employees, 70% of whom were previously homeless or incarcerated.  The restaurant has become a staple in the Ohio food scene and a national model in granting second chances. 

By educating, rehabilitating, and reintegrating offenders back into society, our communities will be safe again.  We will save lives and money.  We will strengthen our families and our country.  We will give thousands of Ohioans a chance to be forgiven – a shot at redemption.

Tyler M. Duvelius is the State Director for the Christian Coalition of Ohio.

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Second Chances

There is an issue that I feel deeply affects the American family; that issue is criminal justice reform. People believe in forgiveness, redemption, restoration, and, ultimately, second chances.  It is why voters from all corners of the state and all walks of life — including religious groups and people working to build stronger communities —  have come together to support the Voting Restoration Amendment.

As Christians, we believe in the biblical principles of forgiveness and redemption.

While it remains important to be tough on crime, we should be focusing on how to be effective on crime. 

Why is this issue so important? Many are surprised to learn that Florida is one of the only three states left that permanently strip the right to vote of convicted felons. Unfortunately, after serving their time, paying any outstanding fines, and completing terms of parole, our citizens are never truly allowed to redeem themselves by integrating back in to society.

We need to re-examine our prison system. Are we actively working to rehabilitate those on the inside, or are we merely providing supervision? Do we need more mental health experts, more mentors, and more educational opportunities in our prisons, to avoid idle time while preparing prisoners for re-entry into society? Are there work opportunities for prisoners? By addressing these concerns, we can reform the prison system to reduce recidivism rates and to encourage productive lives once out of prison.

After serving their sentence, how do we return prisoners to society in a way that discourages recidivism? We must look at public/private partnerships with community and faith-based organizations. Multiple studies have shown that the restoration of Constitutional rights significantly reduces recidivism rates among non-violent offenders.  Less people returning to prison means a reduced financial burden on all tax payers. 

While a few talking points do not do justice to the complexity of the problem, I look forward to working with decision-makers in our communities to find ways to be more effective on crime. That’s not to say we should be soft on crime but, rather, that we should see meaningful results for the time and tax dollars we put into our criminal justice system.

Fully restoring Constitutional rights to those who have paid in full their debts to society is the first step in Criminal Justice Reform. It is the first of many that we know will save lives and money. I encourage everyone to search their hearts, look past the politics of division, and embrace God’s grace for all.

Ash Mason is State Director for Christian Coaliton of Florida