MONOLOGUE June 2 2018
I’ve really never kept up with the Kardashians, but when Kim Kardashian West showed up in the West Wing (not named after her husband, Kanye West, by the way) I took note because she was there to discuss real problems in our criminal justice system. I doubt she’s a policy expert, but if her celebrity can be helpful in bringing attention to reforming a system that sometimes puts a person in prison for life for 3 relatively small thefts, then God bless her! It’s an issue close to my heart because for the almost 11 years I was a Governor, there wasn’t a day when I didn’t deal with prisons, inmates, clemency requests, sentencing issues, or some other aspect of our criminal justice system. The issue might be a request to issue a pardon to a 40 year old who at 17 was a passenger in a stolen car, and while he never even went to prison, the felony conviction meant he couldn’t even get a job emptying a bed pan in a nursing home because he couldn’t clear a background check. Or it could be signing the warrant and issuing the command to carry out an execution.
Changes are needed. A couple of decades ago, a popular policy was “3 Strikes, You’re Out” which meant a life sentence for 3 thefts of $400, while some murder sentences were only 7 years. Saying “tough on crime” was an applause line in a campaign speech, but many applauding didn’t realize that they were supporting a policy that really doesn’t make sense. As Larry Norris, who headed our corrections system for me often said, “We lock people up we’re mad at rather than the ones we’re afraid of.” It meant that some non-violent offenders of sometimes minor crimes were warehoused in the very expensive prison system, while we let others guilty of violent offenses back to the streets to maim and kill again.
It costs more money to put a person in prison for a year than to put a person in college and pay full tuition, room and board, buy books, and provide spending money. And costs more than it would to provide mental health needs for many who are locked up without treatment for what landed them there in the first place. We can educate, medicate, and if necessary incarcerate, but truth be told, we don’t have a crime problem—we have a drug and alcohol problem. 88% of the inmates in the Arkansas system were there for a drug or alcohol related crime—they committed a crime while drunk or high or committed the crime to get drunk or high. Some of those folks absolutely are dangerous and need to be imprisoned, but many would do better to be in treatment centers and community restitution centers which address the root problems and which often cost as little as 10% of the cost of full-blown lockup. Without addressing WHY people ended up in prison, our correction system is mostly a place where greater criminal skills are learned. Upon release, the inmate who can’t find a job ends up committing more elaborate crimes. While the government can’t force people into faith-based programs, my experience was that only the faith-based programs had long-term success rates. Programs like Inner-Change, launched by the late Chuck Colson’s group Prison Fellowship had a less than 20% recidivism rate compared to the more than 80% recidivism of traditional approaches. I spent a day in the Angola Prison in Louisiana, which was once considered the most violent and hopeless institution in America. Now, it’s a model of changing inmate behavior by changing the inmate from the inside out through a process that is about repentance, forgiveness, restitution, and redemption by faith in God. Some inmates will never get out because of what they did, but while their bodies may not be freed, their souls have been.
So let me say it here—thanks, Kim Kardashian for using your notoriety and celebrity for something other than showing us how large your backside is and instead showing us how large your heart is for a system that is broken. Sure, the cynics sneered at your meeting with the President. But I salute you and the President for putting this issue front and center. America can and must do better and if that means Keeping Up With the Kardashians, then count me in.