Prison Fellowship and Jesse Wiese: a Voice from the Church in Criminal Justice Reform

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Last Wednesday, Dr. Dru Johnson hosted guest speaker Jesse Wiese, a criminal justice reform expert and advocate with Prison Fellowship. Wiese spoke on the state of criminal justice and the steps that Prison Fellowship is taking to right the wrongs of a broken system. Despite its enormous social impact, criminal justice reform lacks significant Christian involvement. Second to social welfare programs, criminal justice is the largest state expenditure. Over 2.4 million people are behind bars and one in four adults have been through some part of the criminal justice process. The problem is only getting worse--since 1980, the prison population has increased by 700 percent.

Prison Fellowship’s mission to combat this epidemic is twofold: First, change the culture inside and out of prisons, and second, advocate for a paradigm shift to a restorative justice system. The two-pronged approach allows the organization to treat both the symptoms and the disease. Wiese explained how the fellowship acts as a “cultural catalyst,” changing how offenders see themselves and how the world sees them. He emphasized the importance of a cultural movement to enact systemic change, saying, “If you want to change the law, change culture.”

Today's system inordinately focuses on offenders and the state, sidestepping involvement with the victim and his or her communities and largely eliminating a chance at restoration for offenders. The criminal justice process enables a large amount of state discretionary power. Involvement in the system, with few exceptions, leads to a conviction or plea bargain. Grand juries have a 99.9999321 percent indictment rate, and at the federal level 97 percent (95 percent at the state level) of those cases are resolved by plea bargaining. The massive amount of administrative codes and regulations that can land you in civil and criminal court compounds this problem. There are an estimated 100,000-300,000 federal agency regulations, many of which fail to account for criminal intent.

Weise also explained the collateral consequences following incarceration, labeling the outside world a “second prison” for offenders. Ranging from loss of job opportunities to disenfranchisement, there are 44,000 collateral consequences to being involved in the criminal justice system as an offender. However, none of these are considered by the judge, prosecutor or defense. Prison Fellowship's Second Prison Project advocates to include collateral consequences in court proceedings and sentencing.

Wiese, a former felon himself, holds a personal connection with the flaws of the justice system. He communicated a passion for the work of The Prison Fellowship and noted the opportunity for summer internships. If interested, contact Katherine Thompson at katherine.thompson@tkc.edu.

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