But in the process they have also kept thousands of petty thieves and low-level drug offenders out of the workforce and away from their children. So what do we do with non-violent drug users, who currently make up a quarter of the prison population? Historically, politicians have failed to put forth any alternative to mass incarceration other than outright legalization of currently illegal drugs. The undeniably positive result of legalization is that it would remove the profit motive from the drug trade, causing cartels and gangs to implode overnight. But we would also face the very real possibility that the consumption of drugs which utterly debase human life—cocaine and heroin, for example—would become normalized. And no one from any political party wants heroin usage on the scale that people currently consume alcohol.
But there are options other than long-term incarceration and legalization. The right kind of mentorship can make a huge difference as well, even for violent offenders. The Prison Entrepreneurship Program, pioneered in Texas by former Wall Street professional Catherine Rohr combines loving support and intense accountability with entrepreneurial training to produce what is perhaps the most successful inmate rehabilitation program in the country. In 2012, its three-year recidivism rate was less than 7%, and it saved Texas taxpayers millions of dollars in incarceration costs.
We do not want to return to the violent crime levels of the early 1990’s, but we do not want to keep thousands of people behind bars unnecessarily. With that in mind, sensible, means-tested reform is long overdue.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.