Last weekend, the Episcopal Forum of South Carolina hosted an important conference entitled “Transforming Our Criminal Justice System: Engaging Our Community.” It is a shining example of faith-based communities constructively addressing complex issues touching upon human nature, government and a transcendent moral order.
The conference examined all aspects of South Carolina’s criminal justice system. It evaluated what works, what has failed and how to improve this critical function of government that keeps us safe, holds offenders accountable and affords opportunity for rehabilitation.
South Carolina has led the nation in criminal justice reform. In 2010, Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, and I were lead sponsors of the Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act. It passed with strong bipartisan support. The law safely reduced incarceration rates by imprisoning criminals posing a threat to society, while expanding alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. Then-Gov. Mark Sanford said it could be the most important legislation he would ever sign but that we wouldn’t know its effect for years.
Sanford’s prognostication was prescient. Since the 2010 reforms, our prison population has dropped 14 percent. We will soon close our eighth prison and have saved taxpayers almost $500 million. Meanwhile, crime and recidivism continue to decline, demonstrating that we need not sacrifice safety for a targeted approach to incarceration. This isn’t soft on crime. It’s smart on crime and soft on taxpayers.
Despite our progress, many are still incarcerated for less serious offenses. As a member of the Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee, I am leading a second round of criminal justice reform. Our bill will be introduced in January. Punishment should fit the crime. Serious offenders should serve lengthy sentences. But lesser offenders posing no threat to society, like the mother who steals to feed her infant, are better dealt with through programs outside a prison cell. It saves money, increases rehabilitation and reduces recidivism.
The expensive “lock ’em up and throw away the key” approach isn’t appropriate for all offenses. At times, Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:28 is more appropriate: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Successful programs practicing this in Charleston include our drug court and non-profit rehabilitation programs, such as Turning Leaf Project and Delancey Street.
Conservatives and liberals can find common ground on criminal justice reform. We did in 2010. I am confident we will do it again next year. Most South Carolinians believe personal redemption is possible.
Like many at the forum, my faith drives my interest in criminal justice reform. Chuck Colson was a top adviser to President Nixon and a ruthless player in D.C. politics. Known as Nixon’s “hatchet man,” he served time in prison for the Watergate scandal. Colson became a Christian in prison. His life was utterly transformed. His bestselling book, “Born Again,” is an account of his conversion and initial implications of his new-found faith.
Those implications were profound. Colson founded Prison Fellowship, which has ministered to millions of prisoners worldwide, and Justice Fellowship, which advocates for criminal justice reform. The hatchet man became minister to the downtrodden, and one of the foremost Christian worldview thinkers, teachers, and authors of the last half-century.
I studied for a year under the born-again version of Chuck Colson. The breadth of his intellect was exceeded only by the depth of his compassion. Colson first exposed me to the biblical principle of restorative justice, which has informed my perspective on criminal justice reform. We inherited from English law the concept that a crime is a breach of the Queen’s Peace. In other words, the only offended party in a crime is the government, which must be appeased by imprisonment or payment of a fine.
Restorative justice embodies a more holistic approach. It recognizes that crime breaches relationships on multiple fronts — between criminal and government, criminal and victim, criminal and society, and criminal and God. Because government has a duty to protect us, crime further breaches relationships between government and victim, and government and society. Each broken relationship should be restored, as possible, through devices beyond incarceration. Such devices include restitution to victims, public service to society, victim rights, rehabilitation, and reintegration of offenders.
Restorative justice recognizes that man is fallen and capable of great evil while at the same time he is God’s image-bearer and capable of great good. In our struggle between these two natures, redemption and reformation is possible. Much of criminal justice reform involves implementing principles such as these.
We have reaped huge benefits from the 2010 reforms, but there is more to be done. We will continue our pursuit of a criminal justice system that keeps us safe, stewards taxpayer dollars, reduces recidivism, and enhances rehabilitation. Our objective in this second round of reforms is the same as the first — be smart on crime and soft on taxpayers.
Chip Campsen is a Republican member of the S.C. Senate, representing Charleston, Beaufort and Colleton counties.