June 4, 2018


Monologue text:  

I’ve never really kept up with the Kardashians, but when Kim Kardashian West showed up last week 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. Sure, the media had a field day mocking her, but why shouldn’t she have the right to talk to the President, just like any other citizen? I don’t recall any mocking of Obama for hobnobbing with celebrities when he was hanging with Jay-Z and Beyonce. That just added to his coolness points.

I doubt Kim Kardashian is a policy expert, but if her celebrity can help bring attention to reforming a system that sometimes puts a person in prison for life for three 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 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 the issue 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 “Three Strikes, You’re Out,” which meant a life sentence for three thefts of $400. Meanwhile, some murder sentences were only seven 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 nonviolent offenders of sometimes minor crimes were warehoused in the very expensive prison system, while we let others guilty of violent offenses back onto 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 prison costs more than it would to provide mental health care 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 mostly don’t have a crime problem, we have a drug and alcohol problem.

Eighty-eight percent 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. To be clear: some of those folks absolutely are dangerous and need to be imprisoned. But many would do better in treatment centers and community restitution centers that address the root problems and often cost as little as 10% of the cost of full-blown lockup. Without addressing why people ended up in prison, our corrections 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, once considered the most violent and hopeless institution in America. Now, it’s a model for 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 here what few others will dare say: 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 by trying to fix 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!







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