Prison Fellowship has joined forces with criminal justice and prosecutorial organizations to support bipartisan efforts to reduce disparities in sentences that punish Black Americans more harshly than white Americans.
The #EndtheDisparity campaign, a partnership with organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, has recently focused on the 18-1 ratio in federal sentencing for distributing crack cocaine versus the drug in powdered form. Advocates are pushing for a 1-1 ratio instead.
“We think this is so important an issue and that action is needed now to correct this now long-standing injustice,” said Prison Fellowship President and CEO James Ackerman at an online roundtable with journalists on Tuesday (March 9).
After reading from the biblical Book of Proverbs that “The Lord abhors dishonest scales but accurate weights are his delight,” Ackerman said the disparities in cocaine sentencing are unfair to all Americans but especially to African Americans.
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 81% of crack cocaine trafficking offenders in 2019 were Black, when African Americans comprise a much lower percentage of the U.S. population.
“Think about it: the African American community represents 13.4% of the citizenry of America but 81% of the people convicted for crack cocaine distribution in 2019 alone were African American,” said Ackerman, leader of the 45-year-old evangelical prison ministry founded by former prisoner and Nixon aide Chuck Colson.
“That’s not right and this has existed too long.”
The campaign comes at a time when legislation is being discussed on Capitol Hill that would end the sentencing disparities.
In January, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced the EQUAL Act, whose acronym stands for “Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law.”
On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of House members — Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Bobby Scott, D-Va., Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., and Don Bacon, R-Neb — introduced the House version of the bill.
Previously, Durbin introduced the Fair Sentencing Act, which passed in 2010 and reduced the disparity from 100-to-1, when someone sentenced for distributing 5 grams of crack cocaine served the same amount of time — five years in prison — as someone who was apprehended for distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine.
William Curtis, who was sentenced when the 100-to-1 disparity was in force, told reporters during the online roundtable discussion that he saw the differences in treatment while he was in prison for 20 years and six months for selling $20 and $50 rocks of cocaine.
“I sat in prison many a day and saw people sentenced under powder — white people sentenced under powder — get out of prison, go home, turn around and come back for doing the same thing and then they would get out of prison again, go home, turn around and come back and I’m still here,” he recalled.
Curtis, a Black man, is now continuing the rest of his 327-month sentence under home confinement in Tennessee due to COVID-19 precautions.
FAMM President Kevin Ring said the “political compromise” attained previously to reduce the disparity to 18-to-1 needs to be followed by a complete elimination of the difference in sentencing for distribution of two different forms of the drug.
“The crack powder disparity is the most obnoxious of the discriminatory aspects in our federal justice system,” he said. “Now it is time to finish the job and we think this is a matter of criminal justice and racial justice at a time where our country needs both.”
Heather Rice-Minus, Prison Fellowship’s senior vice president of advocacy and church mobilization, noted that more than 40 states already have laws with 1-1 ratios for punishments related to powder and crack cocaine.
Ring and roundtable participant Frank Russo, director of government and legislative affairs of the National District Attorneys Association, called the disparity a “moral issue” that needs to be addressed.
Russo said his association of local and state prosecutors endorses “common-sense reforms such as the EQUAL Act to improve our nation’s justice system and ensure that we are applying justice equitably.”
Did you know that right here in our country 1.7 million children have a mother or father serving time in prison? Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree is the largest national ministry to reach out to the children of inmates and their families with the love of Christ. By connecting incarcerated parents with their children through the delivery of gifts at Christmas, Angel Tree helps brighten the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. The ministry depends on volunteer and donor support, and this year the need his great, as more than 14,000 children on the Angel Tree list are in need of people to step in to donate the funds necessary to provide gifts for these kids. See the list below for a breakdown of the top 25 counties and states that are still in crucial need of donor help.
Think about it: If all of UrbanFaith’s reader’s were to make a small donation of $12.58 on the day after Thanksgiving as part of their “Black Friday” shopping spree, we could wipe out a large portion of the numbers below. Help us share the the true meaning of Christmas with these kids and their parents by making a donation.
For more information, visit AngelTree.org or call 1-800-206-9764.
BROTHERS IN REDEMPTION: Chuck Colson (right) hugs an ex-inmate and graduate of Colson's Prison Fellowship program. Founded in 1976, PF is aimed at rehabilitating incarcerated men and women through faith-based education, job training, and aftercare. (Photo: Shawn Thew/Newscom)
The passing of Chuck Colson over the weekend brought to mind the issue of stewardship in ministry. Many of the headlines remembered him as Nixon’s “evil genius” in the Watergate scandal, but for many of us he was even better known for what he did after leaving prison.
Colson, as the founder of Prison Fellowship, lived his post-prison, post-conversion life as a champion for the evangelization and discipleship of incarcerated men and women. His gradual expansion of PF to an organization that included work in the area of public policy and criminal justice reform took the group beyond the norms of many predominantly white evangelical organizations. His mobilization of and influence on theological and political conservatives around issues such as the Second Chance Act, prison conditions, and prison rape showed his commitment to both rescuing fish and cleaning the fishbowl. Countless numbers of people, both those incarcerated and those impacted by incarceration (such as victims of crime, former prisoners, and family members of the incarcerated) have been helped, saved, blessed, and reconciled as God used Brother Colson in providing leadership in this area.
But I am mostly drawn to his sense of stewardship in this hour, because it had everything to do with Prison Fellowship’s ascendancy and the challenge of the organization’s future. Stewardship, because Brother Colson had a public visibility prior to his conversion that God was able to use to strengthen the organization itself and give more visibility to prison ministry as a critical component of the witness of the church. With all that Brother Colson could have done with his visibility, committing it to the service of men and women Jesus identified as “the least of these” rings nobly. This is especially significant in light of the historic tension between white evangelical organizations and indigenous African American congregations and ministries, where the competition for scarce resources often gives advantage to the former while the latter struggles in relative obscurity.
I remember once having breakfast with an NFL quarterback who had just made a five-figure donation to an urban youth ministry organization in Philadelphia. He talked about the great needs there, and the fact that this organization was “on the front lines.” I countered that they were indeed, but that there were countless African American and Latino congregations in that city that could use support — they just don’t have leadership with the visibility and clout of some in the white evangelical community. Colson chose to use his clout to answer Christ’s call to remember the prisoner.
Of course, one alternative to white paternalism in urban ministry is for white evangelicals to take all their marbles and go home — leave the places of pain where, as Bible scholar Dennis Kinlaw has reminded us, “God always gets there first.” And so the fact that organizations like Prison Fellowship continue to witness to a holistic gospel in this era of mass incarceration is important. And Brother Colson took good care of his name as a steward of the visibility he gained from his days at the White House, involvement with Watergate, trial and incarceration, conversion and release. He lived as a vibrant example of a life redeemed — a man of influence, thoughtfulness, and compassion.
FROM 'EVIL GENIUS' TO GOD'S SERVANT: A White House special counsel during the Nixon administration, Colson was a key player in the Watergate scandal. He became a Christian in 1974 before serving a prison sentence.
Like many organizations before it, Prison Fellowship will now face the so-called “founder’s dilemma” in staying the course without Colson’s critical stewardship. But there are other obstacles as well: notably the downturn in the economy, which has affected the bottom line of all non-profits, and PF’s continued search for a way to strengthen its work with indigenous African American and Latino congregations. During one of his Breakpoint broadcasts in 2009, Colson lauded the prisoner-reentry partnership which had been developed between Prison Fellowship and the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the historic African American denomination that counted Martin Luther King Jr. as one of its founding members. Colson’s attempts to bridge this gap between conservative and progressive Christians reflected his sincerity, even if the organization’s infrastructure continued to struggle with how to give this vision legs.
As a sociologist who studies congregations, I have seen such infrastructural challenges from Richard Niebuhr’s original documentations in The Social Sources of Denominationalism, through case studies, to my mentors Bill Pannell and Tom Skinner warning us that your ministry can grow into a monster. Whether it’s a large company or big congregation, infrastructure can outgrow mission both in the size of the organization and the attention of its leadership and staff. But even as PF wrestled with these dilemmas, Chuck Colson worked as a steward of his visibility — championing Angel Tree ministries for the children of the incarcerated, advocating compassion for inmates in overcrowded and inhumane conditions, and demonstrating a dogged commitment not only to the evangelization of inmates but to their discipleship as well (no small feat when the predominant mode of prison preaching follows the script: “You messed up, you got caught, you need Jesus”).
Indeed, there is an irony in saying that Chuck Colson has gone to “be with the Lord.” After all, if we take Matthew 25 seriously, Chuck had already been “with Him” more than most.
THE LIGHT STILL SHINES: The sun sets over the Murambi Genocide Memorial in Rwanda on July 9, 2011. (HDR photo by Tyler Hutcherson)
Five months after being immersed in the study of the Rwandan genocide, I still don’t know what to say about it.
I went to Rwanda last summer as part of a study abroad program with my university. I visited genocide memorials and saw the remains of victims, heard the testimonies of survivors and watched Rwandans passionately cry out to God in churches.
By the time I got back, my brain was overloaded with stories of genocide — images of machetes, babies slammed against walls, people hiding in cramped spaces praying they wouldn’t be found.
To try to put these stories into words, when I know that any attempt I make could only trivialize what Rwandans experienced, is not possible. It’s a story that cannot be shared lightly, when someone casually asks what Rwanda was like over small talk at lunch. But Rwanda holds a story that must be told—a warning against the dangers of racist stereotypes and propaganda, and proof that a country that has been through devastation can rise again.
During the month I spent in Rwanda and the weeks I struggled to write about it, I wondered how Rwandan Christians could still have such strong faith after surviving genocide, how anyone could believe in God after their family was brutally massacred in a church.
It deeply disturbs me that professing Christians took part in the Rwandan genocide. How could someone who identifies as Christian hate another race or ethnicity so much that they’d think of them as inyenzi (cockroaches) instead of children of God, that they’d believe it was their right to rape and murder them? How could some priests lure people into churches with false promises of sanctuary before opening their doors to murderers—or, in one case, sending in a bulldozer?
I don’t know the answer to that, but to ask this question without considering why the genocide happened in the first place is too simple of an approach. Genocide never would have happened if it hadn’t been for colonialism. The concepts of Hutu and Tutsi as ethnicities didn’t even exist before then; the names originally referred to social class. It was the colonial government that sorted people into ethnic groups, literally measuring Rwandans and issuing them Hutu or Tutsi ID cards.
NEVER FORGET: Pictures of those killed during the 1994 genocide are installed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali. Donated by survivors, the images honor the 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus who died. (Photo by RADU SIGHETI/RTR/Newscom)
The colonial government and the Catholic Church favored the Tutsi, turning Rwanda into a breeding ground for ethnic resentment. Decades of tensions eventually grew into a genocidal environment under an extremist Hutu regime. Rampant propaganda portrayed Tutsi as “cockroaches,” or enemies set on destroying the country who had to be crushed.
Genocide doesn’t come from nowhere; it’s foreshadowed by ethnic dehumanization — the kind of ideology that will latch on to anything that could lend it power, especially the most powerful of all, religion.
This history by no means justifies what happened in Rwanda, but it does show us the horrifying consequences when people don’t stand up to racism and injustice.
How can Rwandans trust God after genocide?
When I watched Rwandans worship, I couldn’t help but think that you don’t see this kind of dedication in the United States. Some members of a church I visited prayed there for hours every day. How could people who survived such trauma come to God every day and submit their lives to Him without hesitation? And how could they trust Him enough to forgive the people once bent on eliminating their ethnicity?
In the aftermath of genocide, powerful stories of reconciliation between the perpetrators and their surviving victims have emerged. Not only have many Rwandans forgiven, but some have invited the people who killed their family back into their lives—living as neighbors once again, or even becoming family (one woman adopted her son’s killer).
As Bishop John Rucyahana of Prison Fellowship Rwanda told me over the phone, forgiveness is a crucial part of the healing process. Prison Fellowship Rwanda organizes reconciliation programs and works with perpetrators of the genocide to help them repent and ask for forgiveness.
“Those who are forgiving are not forgiving for the sake of the perpetrators only,” Rucyahana said. “They need to free their own selves. Anger, bitterness, the desire to revenge, it’s like keeping our feelings in a container. When you forgive, you feel whole.”
Being in Rwanda is like living in a world of contradictions. Massacres happened on the ground where I stood, and yet when you’re there, you cannot help but stand in awe of the stunning natural beauty. Rwandan Christians survived horrors beyond any nightmare, and yet they have found the strength to forgive their enemies and passionately worship their Creator.
Before, I asked how Rwandan Christians could possibly trust God, let alone believe in his existence, after surviving genocide. But now, I wonder if they trust because they’ve been through hell and back, and they know Who conquers in the end.
Johnson looked at every study conducted between 1944 and 2010 that measured the possible effect of religion on crime. In 273 such studies, he found that “even though their authors used different methods and assessed different groups of people, 90% of these studies found that more religiosity resulted in less crime,” writes Wilson, who then assesses what he alleges are the weaknesses of Johnson’s approach. The key weakness he identifies is the lack of control groups in the cited studies. Nonetheless, Wilson concedes that the sheer number of studies show “a religious effect.”
Dr. Harold Dean Trulear is an associate professor of applied theology at Howard University’s School of Divinity, as well as the director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project in Philadelphia. He’s also a longtime colleague of Johnson’s. In an email response to UrbanFaith, Trulear said he thinks the Wall Street Journal review is “honest and fair.” He added that, as a fellow social scientist, he has “found it best to … use data to be suggestive, but not conclusive.”
“I use Johnson’s work, my own research in religion and social behavior, and the work of others to point academics, researchers, and policy makers toward religion and religious institutions as valuable contributors to our common good. But I always stop short of saying ‘religion works,’ precisely because it is God — not human religious activity — that has true efficacy,” Trulear wrote.
“As a person of faith, my ultimate allegiance is to Christ and His Kingdom, and my sociological training is but a tool for His use. That said, I do not rely on sociology to ‘prove’ the effectiveness of religion or Christianity,” he added. “The whole idea of Christian ‘proofs’ is a late phenomenon in Christian history, coinciding with the scientific age, and the faith’s unfortunate sense that it needed to be scientific to have validity. I use social science to point in the direction of religion’s efficacy concering crime reduction, but strict cause-and-effect language is inconsistent with Christian faith, whether in social science or in prosperity ‘name it and claim it’ theology.”
Wilson’s review mentions Prison Fellowship as the largest effort to increase the religiosity of “convicted offenders.” The Christian organization utilizes a three-stage approach that includes Bible study, community service, and commitment to a church and mentors upon release.
“Johnson looked at the program’s effectiveness in Texas and found that those who completed all three phases were much less likely to be arrested or incarcerated for a new crime than those who dropped out. The key question is whether the inmates who go through all three phases differ in other ways from those who never join the program or drop out early,” writes Wilson. He concludes that in an earlier study Johnson found “no difference between Fellowship and non-Fellowship groups over an eight-year period except for those members of the program who worked hard at Bible studies” and then “the effect lasted for only two or three years after prisoners’ release.”
“What Johnson’s book More God, Less Crime shows so clearly, is that we’ve been right all along: The Gospel changes lives, and it’s the best hope for keeping men and women out of prison,” wrote Colson.
But Trulear would temper any enthusiasm about the book with this caution: “As valuable as Johnson’s work is — and it is extremely valuable in pointing us to religious institutions and behavior as available loci in the fight against crime — people of faith must remember that their ultimate allegiance is not to what works, but to what is best and right. The answers to these two questions will not always coincide.”