March 29, 2010
California is in the midst of what one expert calls a "seismic shift"—and it has nothing to do with the San Andreas Fault. Circumstances are forcing California—like many other states—to rethink the way it handles prisons and prisoners.
The change has been a long time coming, and Californians are paying a high price for the delay.
California's $20 billion budget gap means that everything is on the table, including corrections, which consumes 11 percent of the state's budget. Every offender behind bars costs the state an average of $47,000 a year.
In addition, California is under a court order to ease overcrowding in its prisons, which has 167,000 offenders locked up. They can only hold two-thirds that many.
The result is the rethinking I referred to earlier. After two-plus decades of resisting meaningful criminal justice reform that would keep the public safer, California is trying the whole lot. Part of the overcrowding is due to sending parolees back to prison for technical violations like showing up late for an appointment. They are going to correct that.
Prisoners are also being released early if they complete drug or education programs. Others will have their sentences reduced by taking into account time spent in county jails. Most important of all, California will now try to distinguish between offenders who are truly dangerous and need to be put behind bars, and those who can be punished outside of costly prison walls.
Many of these are good steps—and are what Prison Fellowship has been advocating for years.
The problem is that because California is being driven by a crisis, they are making mistakes. For instance, hundreds of jail inmates were mistakenly released because of confusion over the new criteria.
Since "lock them up and throw away the key for as long as possible" is still a popular theme, especially in the state assembly, opponents of reform are waiting to pounce on these and other mistakes. And even though the state is almost broke and is legally obligated to cut its inmate population, many are still advocating longer sentences and spending more on corrections. As one legislator put it, "Some of my colleagues can't control themselves."
That's because they see prisons as a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of crime. At Prison Fellowship, we have been advocating biblically based criminal justice reforms for years that not only hold offenders accountable, but restore crime victims and promote healthy communities. And we have promoted the kinds of alternatives for non-dangerous offenders that California is looking at.
This advocacy isn't motivated by sentimentality for prisoners—we have no romantic view of prisoners, believe me. It's motivated by the biblical idea of restorative justice, the kind of justice that not only punishes the offender but heals the wounds created by crime.
To learn more about these biblical principles, visit us at PrisonFellowship.org. Find out what you can do to help reform the criminal justice system in a way that's biblical and also keeps us safer.
That's the kind of seismic shift we would all welcome.
Note: This commentary delivered by PFM President Mark Earley.
Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.