Criminal sentencing and justice reform has been a legislative priority for Gov. Nathan Deal from the earliest weeks of his first term in office. That effort has been mostly successful, even if it has consisted mostly of trying to mitigate the effects of years of politically reckless sentencing laws.
Thanks in large part to overhaul of those laws, Georgia has managed to lower its prison population and recidivism rate, no small achievement in a state where the percentage of adults under some form of correctional supervision was approaching twice the national average at the start of Deal's governorship.
But even the best-designed government programs and the best-written laws can do only so much. A spokesman for a different kind of program told the Urban League of Greater Columbus this week that faith can often do what the law can't -- and that faith communities need to be a more active part of the solution.
David Jordan, representing the Governor's Initiative of Transition, Support and Re-entry, introduced to a local audience at the Columbus Civic Center a concept called "Stations of Hope," in which churches and other faith communities provide assistance and guidance for former prisoners and their families as ex-offenders re-enter the community.
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Listeners heard two disturbing facts about American prison populations, only one of which might shock most Georgians: The United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its prison population. The other sad fact, all too familiar, is that most of the people coming into prisons over the last two or three decades (and not just in Georgia) have been nonviolent drug offenders.
"We were putting people in prison who weren't criminally minded," said Jay Neal, executive director of the Governor's Office of Transition, Support and Re-entry, "but they were behaving criminally as a result of their addiction. And the reality is, if you can take care of the addiction and get them in recovery, for many of those, the criminal behavior goes away."
Not every former offender, sadly, will be responsive to a religion-oriented support system, any more than some are responsive to official government-run programs. But the concept has obvious advantages, and obvious appeal.
"What better way," Jordan asked, "than to have faith communities acting as stations of hope to welcome and to minister to those returning citizens, whether it's through housing or mentoring their children or mentoring them?"
Indeed, it's hard to think of many better ways for a house of worship to serve the community than by ministering to those among us who need it, and would perhaps appreciate it, most of all.