Prison reform has captured headlines, triggered partly by the death of Watergate figure Chuck Colson, who founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, but mostly by legislative actions at the state level.
Social justice advocates and fiscal conservatives are agreeing that the rates of recidivism are too high and the fiscal demands are breaking budgets. The system isn’t working and needs reform.

Georgia Republican Gov. Nathan Deal signed “landmark,” bipartisan legislation in early May that addresses “soaring prison spending that was doing little to reform offenders,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

His action drew applause from the nonpartisan, respected Pew Center on the States.

“This comprehensive new law reflects a bipartisan consensus about how to combat nonviolent crime,” said Adam Gelb, director of the PublicSafetyPerformanceProject at the Pew Center.

Gelb said, “Georgia’s leaders have developed a landmark set of reforms that will make communities safer and curb runaway corrections spending.”

Deal hadspoken to prison reform in his January 2012 “State of the State” address, warning about Georgia’s rising prison population and increasing financial expenditures.

“Right now in Georgia, nearly one in three leaving our prisons are reconvicted within three years,” said Deal, a member of First Baptist Church of Gainesville.

In Pennsylvania, liberals and conservatives recommended last week “a series of transformative, evidence-based changes to the Pennsylvania corrections system that will reduce prison populations and costs without jeopardizing public safety.”

In Ohio, the Catholic Conference called on the state’s 2.1 million Catholics to contact their state representatives urging support for a bill that would replace statutes that keep “former offenders from getting jobs in some of the state’s largest employment sectors, such as health care and education.”

In Oregon, Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber issued an executive order in May to study the state’s criminal justice system to cut prison costs and crime.

In Louisiana, the Times-Picayune published an in-depth series on the state’s prison system.

“Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s,” began the series.

In Oklahoma, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill that is expected to reduce prison expenditures and the recidivism rate.

In California, officials announced in April plans for a major overhaul of the state’s prisons.

“California is finally getting its prison costs under control and taking the necessary steps to meet federal court mandates,” said Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

The prison issue is one issue where there appears to be a convergence of political, racial and theological collaboration.

Both political parties are troubled by the high recidivism rates and the crippling incarceration costs. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform found some common ground last year.

Baptists, too, agreed to reach across racial and denominational lines during a recent planning meeting for the 2014 New Baptist Covenant to focus on the prison issue.

The group expressed support for a Baptist Center for Ethics proposal to produce a documentary on Baptists and prisons.

After several weeks of extensive research and continuous calls in search of documentary stories, the Baptist story appears muddled.

A few churches have remarkable stories of energetic re-entry initiatives that have sharply reduced the recidivism rate of returning citizens, especially of women.

Other churches have faced challenges about what to do when released sex offenders want to attend church, and how to balance evangelism with religious liberty for inmates.

Still other churches seem to ignore completely Jesus’ clarion call to care for the incarcerated.

The more I dig into the issue, the more I’m inspired by what I hear. Goodwill Baptists have some terrific stories.

At the same time, I’m surprised at how little goodwill Baptists are doing, especially for a people who claim the Bible as their guide.

If we really take our moral agenda from Jesus’ agenda – found in Luke 4 and Matthew 25 – then we’ve got some reprioritizing to do.

RobertParham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friendhim on Facebook.

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