Sentencing a Sheriff

If it weren't tragic, it would be funny. A California sheriff was ordered by a federal judge to reduce overcrowding in prisons. He complied by cutting sentences and letting prisoners out early. The hapless sheriff was then sentenced by another judge to jail. The charge? That he was releasing prisoners early! What's a sheriff to do? Prison overcrowding is a real problem. But the solution is not just cutting sentences. And the solution is certainly not adding to the prison population by throwing law-abiding sheriffs in with the criminals. A real solution is alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders. Violent offenders should be incarcerated--to protect the public. But nearly half the people in prison today are there for non-violent offenses. Simply reducing sentences often releases violent criminals back onto the streets to make room inside for non-violent ones. This is ludicrous. Violent offenders are unleashed on the public, where some 75 percent will commit new violent crimes and end up back in prison. While nonviolent offenders lie in their bunks all day at public expense. The nonviolent criminal bilked the public once when he committed theft or fraud or whatever. Then we let him bilk it again--to subsidize his idleness. A much better use of public money--and human resources--is to sentence nonviolent offenders to community service. Clean up a ghetto neighborhood. Work in a street mission. Prison Fellowship conducts 2-week work projects using furloughed inmates to rehabilitate run-down housing. Nonviolent offenders can also work at paid jobs and use the income to pay back the people they have wronged: It's called victim restitution. When I speak on this subject, people sometimes come up to me and say, Victim restitution--what a great idea. Where'd you get it? And I say, Do you have a Bible? Dust it off and read it. That's where the concept came from. Alternatives sentencing programs are good for the victim, good for the community--and good for offenders. Time and again, the response to Prison Fellowship's work programs is gratitude: gratitude for the chance to do something positive for society rather than vegetate in a prison cell. Of course, programs like these can't be accomplished by the criminal justice system alone. They require the cooperation of local churches and communities. Quincy, Massachusetts, has one of the best victim restitution programs in the country. Several local businesses have agreed to accept offenders as employees, and then they use their salaries to pay back their victims. The relationship works out so well those businesses often keep offenders on staff permanently even when their sentences are over. When I was convicted in the Watergate scandal in 1975, I was sentenced to prison. When Oliver North was convicted for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal 15 years later, the same judge sentenced him to 2 years of community service, working with black inner-city youth in Washington, D.C. Some of my friends wondered if I'd be upset at the discrepancy in sentencing. But no--I applauded the judge's decision. Just consider: a nonviolent offender put behind bars costs taxpayers about $20,000 per year. Put him on probation and the supervision costs are a fraction of that. And the benefits are incalculable. So come on, California. Start using alternative sentencing to solve your prison overcrowding. And by all means, stop sending your hard-pressed sheriffs to jail.


Chuck Colson



  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary