A former criminal appeals lawyer tells the story of how he came to help incarcerated women transition back into society.
By Andrew Falk ‘98
“Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” These words from Deuteronomy 16 have long summarized my love of and passion for the law. The outworking of that call, however, has not gone as I expected. I went to law school planning to defend the constitutional freedoms of individuals, families, and churches. Today, however, most of my time is spent helping to restore the freedom of men and women who currently have almost none.
After two judicial clerkships, my first legal position opened my eyes to the needs of several families suffering environmental and health damages from the careless, and likely intentional, release of PCBs onto their land. I spent five years discovering the importance of environmental law. I began thinking deeply about how and why Christians should care about environmental policy and what form that policy should take. Then the needs of my family compelled another change, one that would shape my practice going forward.
A door opened to practice criminal appeals for our state attorney general. As I told my young children, my job was to “keep the bad guys in jail” by briefing and arguing in support of offenders’ convictions and sentences. For the next few years, my efforts helped to sustain the convictions and sentences of dozens of Indiana offenders.
Just as the practice of environmental law opened my eyes to the importance of that topic for the believer, I now gained a new perspective on criminal law. I had always enjoyed the “stories” of criminal law, which were often compelling and always unique. But now I started to consider what it meant for “justice” to be done for these offenders.
When we think of justice, we often focus upon justice for the victims, as we should. There is also an important fundamental sense in which society rightly demands justice. But in a very real sense, what is just for the perpetrator of the crime is equally as important.
The experience of a parent illustrates why this is true. As even a cursory review of Scripture reveals, wise parents discipline their children. While this discipline is not pleasant at the time, it is necessary, and its diligent use demonstrates that the parents love their children.
Although a state’s imposition of criminal justice – discipline – is not completely analogous, there are key similarities. In both situations, the “unpleasantness” of “discipline” is not imposed vindictively. Instead, it is imposed with the goals of correcting, training, and ultimately, restoring. A good parent does not simply angrily lecture a child or impose corporal punishment. Similarly, a wise judge does not “throw the book” at a defendant and forget about him. In both cases, justice is handed down with the goal of restoring the offender to his former relationship, both in the family and in society.
The point is not that we should treat offenders as children. Instead, just as compassionate parents long to restore a disobedient child, those involved in the justice system must also focus on restoring people convicted of a crime back to full membership in society. Society as a whole must also embrace this goal. Just as we do not label a child “a hitter” and forever ostracize him, so also we need to move away from the stigma of the “ex-con” and work for reformation of the individual and restoration into societal citizenship.
No longer is it my responsibility to keep the bad guys in jail. After leaving the attorney general’s office and following another unexpected turn in the road, I joined a public policy organization and spent two years intensively studying the influence of Indiana’s criminal code reforms. Having completed that project, the majority of my time is now spent at a maximum security women’s prison. There I am working with the incarcerated women to develop and coordinate a program to help them leave the facility – and stay out, having successfully re-entered society.
My journey from having a prosecution-minded, justice-loving, law-and-order mindset to trying to help incarcerated women make their way back into society is a long and interesting one. But two factors played key roles. First, it is well-recognized that the United States has incarcerated, at any one time, about 2.2 million people. Less well known is the fact that 600,000 of them will re-enter society this year. And perhaps most concerning, if current trends are consistent, between 200,000 and 400,000 of these will either commit a new crime or violate the terms of their release within the next three years. For someone who loves justice and values law and order, these trends are alarming.
The root causes of these statistics will require a multi-pronged approach to address. One answer could be that greater crime prevention is essential. Another could be criminal sentencing reform. A third may rightly address cultural and familial issues. All of these are important. But these solutions offer no hope for the 2.2 million already caught up in the system.
A second key factor that affected my perspective was actually spending time with the incarcerated women. I was initially taken aback by how “normal” most of them are. But I also soon realized that they have problems, needs, hopes, and dreams, just like all of us. After a few or many years in prison, however, they also need our help upon completing their sentences.
The answer for the millions of men and women already in the criminal justice system is that we need true re-entry reform. We need to help those leaving incarceration re-enter society, not just surviving but also thriving, and help them stay there. No more prison, no more crime.
How can this be achieved? Chuck Colson defined a system of true justice as one “that holds individuals responsible for their actions under an objective rule of law but always in the context of community and always with the chance of transformation of the individual and the healing of fractured relationships.” In contrast to traditional methods of re-entry, the presence of four factors appear necessary for a new trend. These factors align with Colson’s vision for transformation and healing in the context of community:
First, whether operated by state departments of correction or not-for-profit organizations, successful programs are residential-based to provide a transitional physical, mental, and social buffer period between the strict limitations of incarceration and the challenges of full community re-entry.
Second, successful programs rely upon close working relationships with the larger community. Such programs provide services to the community to establish foundations of trust so that long-term job and housing opportunities may be created for offenders when they leave the transitional programming.
Third, effective programs are scaled and individualized so that each participant can have both individual and group guidance and programming to create a true case-management support system for the offender as they transition for re-entry.
Finally, these programs are all holistic and long-term in nature. They establish a relationship with the offender during incarceration and then address the many challenges of transition and follow the participant as he or she re-enters the community with resources in education, job-skills, life-skills, behavioral change/anger management, re-establishing parenting/family connections, financial management, addiction treatment, religious/spiritual development, mentorship, finding employment, housing, transportation, clothing, food and healthcare.
This may sound like an exhausting undertaking – even impossible. I don’t disagree. But think for a minute of the challenges of correcting, training, and restoring a disobedient child. Most of the steps above have near direct analogues in the parent-child relationship. It is no wonder that reintroducing a person back into society, particularly after a prolonged period of incarceration, would be any less involved.
So as I continue to pursue “justice, and only justice,” I am also increasingly mindful of another command: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them.” (Heb. 13:3a).
Andrew Falk was a fall 1998 Witherspoon Fellow. He would love to discuss these issues further and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and four children.