Second Chances

By Shane Vander Hart 

I originally posted this over at my blog.

I am at the White House Faith Based and Community Initiatives’ National Summit on Prisoner Re-Entry in Los Angeles (where it is currently 76 degrees Fahrenheit – compared to 35 in Des Moines).  Yesterday during the morning plenary session, Jay Hein, the Director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives gave some sobering statistics.

  • 2.2 Million Americans are currently incarcerated (I heard today that 3.2 Million are involved with the criminal justice system).

  • $60 Billion (yes with a B) dollars are spent on an annual basis.  The Corrections budget is the 2nd fastest growing budget in appropriations – 2nd only to health care.

  • 60,000 convicts are released a year.  Two out of three of those released will be rearrested, and over 50% of those released will be re-incarcerated in three years.

None of these statistics included juveniles.  Needless to say we have a problem here.  The prison system has become a growth industry.  We in society don’t help when we don’t give ex-convicts a second chance when it comes to employment (if they can’t work one can only assume they will re-offend) and it is also hard to find housing.  Not to mention that when they go back to the same social networks that got them in trouble in the first place it is hard to break out of this cycle of crime.  Many of these ex-offenders are not prepared for life on “the outs”.

The Church must get involved.  The state can’t do it by itself.  The Church must be open to partnerships as there are things that they are unable to do.  No one organization (faith based or community) can do this by themselves.  It takes collaboration.  If I’ve learned nothing else from this conference.  It is that.  I obviously come from a different angle.  I’m interested in the juveniles.  I want to reach them before they get into the adult correctional system.  I would like raise the level of re-entry aftercare provided for them when they are released from juvenile facilities.  I would also like to see less juveniles entering the juvenile system.

I would love to see a prison or two (or all, but I am a realist) get shut down as a result.  I wouldn’t mind working myself out of a job.  I would actually love to see that happen.  God has given me a passion for high-risk kids, in particular, the ones who have been locked up.  I don’t know why… I don’t have much in common (in that I didn’t get caught, and they didn’t arrest kids back when I was a kid for likes like fighting in school).  The last two-three years I’ve had an increasing burden for re-entry aftercare after seeing some of the same kids come through our Bible discussion group re-offend, commit murder or are killed themselves.  It breaks my heart.

So I see now a first step is to establish a collaborative effort in the area I live with stakeholders representing government, business, community organizations, law enforcement and of course the faith community.  Pat Nolan, the vice-president of Justice Fellowship with Prison Fellowship Ministries shared from Scripture what could be a common vision for re-entry aftercare.

My people will live in peaceful dwelling places,
       in secure homes,
       in undisturbed places of rest, (Isaiah 32:18, NIV).

If nothing else seeing the successful integration of juvenile and adult offenders back into our society should be framed as a public safety issue.  But not only that, those who are released deserve a second chance.  President George W. Bush said in his 2005 (I believe) State of the Union address, that we “live in a land of second chances,”  and I also serve a God of second (and third and fourth) chances.

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