Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, calls the U.S. Department of Justice's accounting of a record seven-million people either behind bars or on probation or parole at the end of 2005 "staggering" -- but he also sees it as a prime opportunity for the Church to demonstrate the gospel's advantage over the American penal system.
The DOJ's seven-million count represents one in every 32 American adults and breaks down to just over two million individuals in jail in the U.S., 4.1 million on probation, and more than 784,000 on parole, Earley notes. He says there has been a nearly tenfold increase of participants in the justice system, up to 2.3 million, since Charles W. Colson founded Prison Fellowship 30 years ago.
"People who are getting out [of prison] are coming back in at a rate of 50 percent after three years," the prison ministry's current president points out. "And yet," he says, "in many cases the courts and the more liberal elements in our nation don't want to allow faith-based rehabilitation programs that are entirely voluntary to occur behind prison walls because [those programs] are based on the teachings of Christ and might offend someone else."
But as far as Earley is concerned, the latest Justice Department annual report, with its dire statistics -- like the 50 percent recidivism (prisoner return) rate within three years of release -- only confirms the dire need for a spiritually-based approach to inmate rehabilitation.
"It's a huge opportunity for the Church to demonstrate the transforming power of the gospel," the Prison Fellowship spokesman says. "And it's really a huge testimony as well," he adds, "of the current government policies we have around the nation being a real failure -- not only to stem crime but to transform those who have run afoul of the criminal justice system."
Prison Fellowship is currently appealing an Iowa federal judge's order to shut down its InnerChange Freedom Initiative prison program and to reimburse the state for running it. Earley feels the judge's ruling is bewildering, especially since the voluntary, faith-based program was a success, charting a three-year prisoner return rate of only eight percent.
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