By Colson & Van Ness
WASHINGTON, D.C. (FR) – In an indictment of the nation’s criminal justice system, two experts working in the field have called for a dramatic overhaul of the way America punishes offenders.
Former “law and order” presidential aide and Watergate figure Charles W. Colson, now chairman of Prison Fellowship ministries; and attorney Daniel Van Ness, head of Justice Fellowship (an advocacy group promoting reforms in the criminal justice system), have co-authored a book attacking America’s current system of justice and introducing a new concept which they say would revolutionize the way we look at crime and punish its perpetrators.
“The criminal justice system in America is on the brink of incoherence,” the authors argue in Convicted: New Hope For Ending America’s Crime Crisis (Crossway). “Not even those who run it defend it. It is a joke to criminals, a mystery to victims, a scandal to taxpayers.”
Grim prison statistics point to a seemingly hopeless situation. In mid-1988, there were 604,824 prisoners in America; 83 percent more than in 1980. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency forecasts that prison populations will increase by 50 percent in the next 10 years. Yet prison construction has not kept pace, resulting in severe overcrowding situations – federal prisons are as much as 73 percent over capacity, while state prisons operate between 105 to 120 percent of capacity.
“We need prisons for dangerous offenders,” Colson and Van Ness agree. “But nearly half the people who are in prison today are there for nonviolent offenses. According to Department of Justice figures, it costs an average of $80,000 to build a maximum security cell, and an average of $15,900 a year to house a prisoner there. The nonviolent offender should be working in community service, paying back those he wronged, learning to contribute as a responsible member of society rather than sitting idly in an expensive prison cell, growing bored and bitter and plotting his next crime.”
Colson and Van Ness challenge the existing system with an ambitious plan which they call Restorative Justice. These principles form the foundation of Restorative Justice:
1. Crime causes injuries that must be repaired.
2. All parties affected by crime should be included in the response to crime.
3. Government and local communities must play cooperative and complementary roles.
Programs around the country are already demonstrating the effectiveness of Restorative Justice. Prison Fellowship has for nine years conducted Community Service Projects, in which nondangerous prisoners are furloughed to repair the homes of needy or disabled individuals. All parties involved benefit from this arrangement: the prisoners contribute a worthwhile service to the community, the residents’ homes are repaired, and the community gains a new perspective of the offenders. Such community programs are far less expensive to operate than incarceration, with many gaining revenue to support themselves.
The U.S. imprisons more people per capita than any nation in the world except the Soviet Union and South Africa. And yet, Colson and Van Ness contend, America’s prison experiment is not working. The “lock ‘em up and throw away the key mentality” that gets public officials elected has resulted in overcrowded prisons.
“If we really want to get tough on crime, let’s hold offenders accountable to their victims,” the authors conclude. “Let’s reserve prisons for hardened criminals (where they can be incarcerated for longer periods of time), and let’s put nonviolent offenders to work. Let’s give victims a meaningful say in the justice process, and let’s put community resources to the task of binding the wounds caused by crime.”