Some convicted criminals should serve their time outside of prison: a proposed hill may make this happen.

Some Americans believe prison reform is a concern only of prisoners, not of those who obey the law. After all, prisons are for criminals, who deserve what they get. Prisons are supposed to be punishment, not vacation.

No Christian or any thoughtful person could argue this way, but such thinking does reflect a state of mind that fosters an apathy to prison reform shared by many Christians.

Fortunately, the growing social consciousness of evangelicals (and fundamentalists too) has begun to change this attitude. Then this spring in Orlando, at its annual convention, the National Association of Evangelicals urged the enactment of state and federal legislation to “insure sufficient prison space for dangerous offenders” and provide “that nondangerous offenders be punished through strictly enforced orders of restitution.” It further called upon “pastors to encourage their churches to become actively engaged in prison ministries … through well-qualified agents.” And finally, NAE urged prison officials to “provide maximum opportunity for volunteers” from Christian organizations “since complete rehabilitation comes as the gospel of Jesus Christ transforms the heart of the individual.”

Meanwhile, Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and William Armstrong (R-Colo.) will be introducing a piece of legislation to be known as the Sentencing Improvement Act. It provides that dangerous criminals be imprisoned in order to protect society from violence. But the other 50 percent of criminals are nondangerous. They should be punished by enforced restitution carefully monitored. This would require repayment where possible, and appropriate alternatives otherwise. In this way, the victim of the crime could receive a just recompense, and society in general would benefit. Other provisions allow for imprisonment of some nondangerous or nonviolent criminals, such as repeaters and those who endanger the national security. In all cases, the sentencing judge would have the discretion to impose a prison sentence if he thought special circumstances warranted it.

This Nunn-Armstrong Act begins to tackle one of the most desperate problems facing modern American society, and every Christian owes it active support. The bill not only provides better justice and more effective treatment of criminals, but also, directly or indirectly, benefits society as a whole.

Benefits For The Cause Of Justice

First, our present overcrowded prison system is unjust for those guilty of breaking the law. In recent years, prison population has mounted in alarming proportions. For the year 1982, it was up 20 percent over 1981. With a proper reorganization of our courts so as to provide swifter justice, the figure would be significantly higher. Overcrowded prisons bring punishment, but they can hardly be described as just. Criminals are not animals, but humans. Justice requires that they be punished, but this does not mean that prisons must destroy the person-hood of criminals, or their self-respect, or their health, or their safety, or their lives.

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Worse yet, today’s prisons are schools for crime. Ideally, of course, our prisons ought to rehabilitate; and it is in the interest of society that they should do this. But three-fourths of all those released from prison are re-admitted within four years. Our prisons do not just punish criminals, they make criminals. Numerous studies have shown that in practice nondangerous criminals are more likely to become repeaters when sent to prison than when forced to work off their punishment outside of prison. Moreover, well over half of all prisoners are not violent and are not dangerous to the life or personal safety of others. But present-day American prisons make nonviolent and nondangerous criminals into violent and dangerous ones. Putting nondangerous offenders into prison with those who are dangerous does not rehabilitate them. Just the opposite is true: it increases the likelihood that they will become repeaters, and it makes nondangerous criminals dangerous.

To the degree, therefore, that we have regard for the criminal’s welfare, we are forced to conclude that prison sentences are usually not the best way to deal with nonviolent criminals. And while a Christian must insist that the first purpose of punishment is not the improvement of the criminal but rather justice, we cannot ignore the fact that nonviolent criminals are much more likely to be rehabilitated outside prison than inside.

But justice requires that crimes be punished. And punishment by enforced restitution instead of imprisonment provides the appropriate punishment for a nonviolent criminal: it restricts his freedom by I mposing on him tasks he would never choose for himself. And he takes from his own resources so that he can repay the victim in society. But it does so in a way least likely to destroy, and most likely to transform him into a more sensitive, obedient, and law-abiding citizen.

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Benefits To Society

The present system of imprisonment is also a disaster for society. The new law would immediately benefit it by focusing our resources on protecting it against crimes of violence. With the rapid increase in crime and consequent drastic overcrowding of our prisons, there is simply no room for many truly dangerous and violent criminals at the time they are convicted. As a result, they often are not sent to prison but are kept on probation. As many as 34 states have reached a crisis in sentencing criminals. And numerous court orders have prohibited imprisonment even of violent criminals. The alternative is for them to be placed on probation. As a result, convicted criminals are free to continue to murder, rape, maim, and steal as they prey on society. It simply does not make sense to fill our limited prisons with those who have forged checks while allowing rapists to continue to prowl the streets. Society must be protected from their violence.

Second, the present prison system is costing society unbelievable amounts of money and resources. Victims are seldom reimbursed. Moreover, they pay double because in the end they must also pay taxes to feed, clothe, and house the nondangerous criminal in prison. And this takes no small sum, but amounts to thousands of dollars per prisoner each year for more than half our total prison population.

In addition, as often as not the family of the prisoner must be supported by the community for the duration of his prison term, adding to the total cost to the victim and other members of society. In fact, as a side benefit this bill protects the family unit and holds it together far more effectively than a prison sentence would possibly permit.

The Sentencing Improvement Act would also eliminate the necessity for building literally billions of dollars worth of new prisons to house all dangerous and nondangerous criminals adequately. It has been conservatively estimated that the federal government alone would save $200 million per year by adopting a consistent policy of alternatives to a prison sentence for nondangerous criminals.

Arguments Against Restitution

The objection is sometimes raised that nonprison sentences for nonviolent criminals would lead to an immediate increase of nonviolent crimes. Statistics do not bear this out. Studies based on police records show there would be no increase by such a change. People prone to commit crimes are deterred not by the severity of the punishment but by the certainty of its swiftness. Further studies have shown that nonviolent and nondangerous criminals are much less likely to be repeaters if they have been punished outside of prison. This is partly because sentences involving restitution force them to see the immediate consequences of their crime to other people and the cost to society of what they have done. Moreover, by not being sent to prison they avoid the postgraduate course in crime that a prison sentence inevitably brings. So deterrents to nonviolent crimes would be maintained while influences leading to a life of violent and dangerous crime would be significantly reduced by passage of this bill.

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It has also been suggested that the Sentencing Improvement Act would be racially discriminatory by providing prison sentences for minority offenders, who are more likely to be violent. But studies thus far indicate that racial proportions in prisons would not be significantly affected.

Likewise, the new bill would not discriminate against the poor. Wealthy criminals would have to make restitution. The law would not help the wealthy or the poor, but it would punish those who committed nonviolent crimes in such a way as to give society the greatest protection possible from violent and dangerous criminals whether rich or poor.

How The Act Would Work

The administration of the proposed law is no more complicated than our present probation services. The Prison Fellowship provides us with two examples of how the act would work:

1. An unemployed janitor steals all the welfare checks from the mailboxes in the building where he used to work. He cashes some of them before he is arrested. Still not employed at sentencing, he is ordered to spend a certain amount of time each week looking for work. He is also required to pay restitution to the government when he finds work. And he must perform free custodial services for those in the building who lost their checks and would like to take advantage of his services up to a total of 100 hours. Finally, he is ordered to perform 100 hours of janitorial work at a local community center.

2. A bank teller embezzles $1,500 from her employer in order to finance her music lessons. She has lost her job but gotten another as a telephone operator. She is ordered to pay back the bank at the rate of $100 a month and to spend 200 hours on weekends teaching a music class at the YMCA.

Christians concerned about crime should back the Sentencing Improvement Act and urge their representative in Congress to put it into law. It is a move to bring better justice to our prison system. And it will not only protect society from the growing menace of violent crime, but bring significant benefits to criminals, to victims of their crimes, and above all, to society as a whole.


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