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Prison task force mirrors SBC resolution

WASHINGTON (BP) — The recommendations of a bipartisan congressional task force on reducing the federal prison population have drawn praise from some evangelicals and parallel at several points the recommendations of a 2013 Southern Baptist Convention resolution on “America’s growing prison population.”

Among the recommendations of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections were elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug and weapon-possession offenses; implementation of a Second Look program to permit early release of some inmates who have served at least 15 years; and provision of additional faith-based programs in federal prisons.

Federal prisons held nearly 200,000 people at the end of 2015, according to the task force’s Jan. 26 report, 20 percent above capacity. America’s local, state and federal prisons combined hold more than 2.2 million inmates on any given day, marking the “highest incarceration rate in the world.”

The task force estimated implementation of its recommendations would reduce the federal prison population by 60,000 inmates and save the government $5 billion.

“I am delighted to hear the recommendations of the Charles Colson Task Force,” said David Crosby, a member of the 2013 SBC Resolutions Committee and the primary author of the prison reform resolution’s first draft. Prison overcrowding “diminishes any prospect for rehabilitation, exacerbates problems with inmate violence and creates unsafe work environs for public employees. As Christians, we must be concerned about these conditions.”

The Colson Task Force, established by Congress in 2014, was named for the late Richard Nixon aide who experienced a midlife conversion to faith in Christ and founded the Christian ministry Prison Fellowship after serving seven months in federal prison for his role in the Watergate scandal.

The task force issued six broad recommendations in its 132-page report, each of which included multiple specific policy proposals:

— Preserve prison for those convicted of the most serious crimes.

— Promote a culture of safety and rehabilitation in federal facilities.

— Incentivize participation in risk-reduction programming.

— Ensure successful reintegration by using evidence-based practices in supervision and support.

— Enhance system performance and accountability through better coordination across agencies and increased transparency.

— Reinvest savings to support the expansion of necessary programs, supervision and treatment.

The SBC resolution, adopted by messengers assembled in Houston two and a half years ago, similarly expressed “support of legislative policies that seek to reduce high incarceration rates without jeopardizing public safety” and affirm that “probation and parole may serve as a wise, just, and effective alternative to prolonged incarceration for certain nonviolent offenders.”

The resolution urged federal, state and local criminal justice agencies to “increase cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention and other like-minded organizations who seek to reach offenders with the life-transformational Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Prisons should “reduce recidivism through moral and spiritual transformation,” according to the resolution.

Mark Wohlander, a former federal prosecutor and member of Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., affirmed the task force’s recommendations to eliminate some mandatory minimum sentences and reinstate a form of parole in the federal prison system.

“The implementation of the federal sentencing guidelines and abolishing parole in the federal system have combined to ensure that federal prisons continue to be nothing more than warehouses,” Wohlander told Baptist Press in written comments. “What Congress failed to understand when the guidelines were promulgated was that incarceration had four purposes: (1) retribution; (2) incapacitation; (3) deterrence; and (4) rehabilitation. Guideline sentencing has all but eliminated the most significant purpose of prison, that is, rehabilitation.”

Jimmy Dukes, director of prison programs at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, affirmed the recommendation that federal prisons provide faith-based programs. He noted the success of New Orleans Seminary’s extension program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and said such programs can reduce recidivism.

“As a Christian, I strongly believe that we all suffer the consequence of our wrong action,” Dukes told BP in written comments. “I believe we deserve that. But that is not the end of the story. I also strongly believe that people, even those who have broken the law and deserve punishment, can experience change. I know personally that I cannot change myself. But I also know that God alone can change us.

“A friend of mine in corrections talks about ‘moral rehabilitation,'” Dukes continued. “I have seen it in the lives of many. Moral rehabilitation comes from God through the proclamation of the Gospel. I believe the solution to fixing overcrowded prisons is what we have seen at Angola and are seeing in Mississippi, Georgia and now Florida” — sites of other New Orleans Seminary prison programs. “We need to do all we can to help those who are there experience the change that can come through moral rehabilitation.”

Crosby, pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans, said Gospel-proclaiming prison ministries are “sometimes the only real efforts available for inmates who want to change the course of their lives.”

“Our churches must turn toward the local jails and prisons,” Crosby said. “Inmates who bear the image of God will respond to the Gospel in repentance and faith if we go. And those who bear witness will discover that these faceless, nameless prisoners are true friends and family to us.”

In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama expressed hope that he and Congress could work together to pass criminal justice reform legislation this year — a hope in line with the task force’s observation that “a bipartisan appetite for reform is readily apparent in actions taken by all three branches of government.”

Evangelicals who served on the Colson Task Force included chairman J.C. Watts, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma; Craig DeRoche, Prison Fellowship’s senior vice president of policy and advocacy; Jim Liske, former president and CEO of Prison Fellowship; and David Iglesias, director of Wheaton College’s Wheaton Center for Faith, Politics and Economics.