Belief in a personal redeemer and his offer of redemption is a powerful and cleansing force.
Christ’s redemptive work is not simply powerful, but absolutely necessary. Sadly, for too long, we have segregated a benevolent redeemer’s stabilizing work from too much of civic life. There is no greater example of this omission than in our criminal justice system.
Today, 36,000 Louisianans are behind bars. That distinction places Louisiana as the highest per-capita incarcerator in the country. Our current “correctional” system failed to equip one in every three of its 18,000 “graduates” who were released last year and who returned to a life of crime.
More than anything, these incarceration statistics tell me that Louisiana, appropriately so, is heavily invested in remaining tough on crime, and now we should embark on a journey to restore the wonder and redemptive value of each human life.
Grace has been extended to each of us. Now, within the criminal justice system, we must consider intentionally extending that same grace to the eligible and willing residents of our jail and prison system.
We must purposefully set aside fear and partisan rhetoric so that the light of redemptive work might begin to transform families, neighbors and even communities.
Understand that redemption does not mean that we pass out a “get out of jail free card” to every offender who commits harm against another. I fully support the ideal of ensuring public safety, and I believe this ideal is best accomplished when (1) we make proportional the penalty exacted commensurate to the infraction; (2) personal accountability becomes central to the entire criminal justice system, including victim restitution for property crimes; and (3) we consider work-release programs for petty crimes and longer-term incarceration in appropriate cases.
When we balance personal responsibility with second-chance opportunities, we may actually incentivize fewer to recidivate.
Last session, we saw Louisiana legislators work across party lines to reduce recidivism rates and increase second-chance opportunities for those returning home. We expanded the opportunities for clearing the record of ex-offenders who have demonstrated that they have no intention of reoffending. This policy assists re-entrants in obtaining gainful employment.
To mark how we approach criminal justice in Louisiana, the Louisiana Family Forum included justice reform legislation on our 2016 Legislative Scorecard. Additionally, we honored a number of lawmakers from both parties at our 17th annual Legislative Awards Gala on Sept. 15, including state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-N.O, a recipient of the 2016 Life and Liberty Award, for her effort to improve Louisiana’s justice system.
We also premiered a new video by the U.S. Justice Action Network, a powerful illustration of our focus in Louisiana. The film shows how community stakeholders, business leaders, judges, people of faith, and prison officials joined together to create a “re-entry court” housed at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
There, dozens who otherwise would be sentenced to a lengthy prison term are entering substance-abuse programs and vocational training for certification in good-paying jobs. These “souls” are mentored by Angola’s “lifers” who have been trained and licensed by the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, transforming their prison community and beyond.
Initial data shows that this program produces far better results than the status quo. Re-entry Court, its participants and its creators are a proof that both accountability and redemption are possible in Louisiana.
Together, we can make redemption a core value throughout Louisiana’s justice system. Work is underway today as a part of a justice reinvestment task force to analyze our system from top to bottom and to create reasonable proposals for further reforms that will increase public safety, achieve better outcomes and, indeed, offer hope for the incarcerated and their families.
These policies have overwhelming bipartisan support, a sign of real hope for improvement in this country.
I believe Billy Graham said it best: “Outside of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I know of no other hope for mankind.” I long to see that redemption for all my neighbors, including those who have lost their way.
I stand steadfast in my commitment to redemptive efforts and hope this work marks the dawning of a new day for Louisiana’s criminal justice system.
The Rev. Gene Mills is president of the Baton Rouge-based Louisiana Family Forum and Louisiana Family Forum Action.