Hoping — against hope — for a shorter sentence

I led the Protestant service last night at a federalĀ  minimum-security prison facility. About a dozen inmates came out. At one point I asked, “What’s the good news?” I was met with some puzzled looks. I explained that, as Christians, we are people of good news because the gospel is good news. “So,” I asked again, “what’s the good news?”

After a pause, one inmate held up his hand. I invited him to share the good news.

He began with the statement that God is not limited or controlled by the will of humans. “I believe,” he said, “that God can do supernatural things even when there is no reason to believe that anything will change.”

The inmate proceeded to describe how, in response to President Obama’s invitation to nonviolent drug offenders to apply for a commutation of sentence, he had written a letter to the Justice Department. He said he was aware when he did so that he did not technically qualify because (1) he had less than 10 years left on his sentence, and (2) he was not convicted of a drug offense. But, with God, all things are possible, he affirmed.

He went on to note that he received an acknowledgment of his letter, saying what he already knew — that his situation did not qualify under the guidelines of the program. Still, he insisted, “I believe that God is going to shorten my sentence and that I will be leaving here before the end of this year.”

Lacking any faith at all, I replied, “God really has his hands full when it comes to the Justice Department processing these commutation requests.” Later in the service, I tried to recover by praying for justice on behalf of all who are victims of injustice.

Little did I know that I would find on the website of Politico this morning an article by Josh Gerstein, “Obama’s drug-sentencing quagmire,” that pretty much makes my faithless statement last night look too optimistic.

Amid all the protests over the killings of black men and boys by white police officers in recent weeks, one finds imbedded here and there in the news articles statements that crime rates in America are almost at historic lows. Everyone seems to be wondering why.

Some think they know why. It’s because we have about 2 million men incarcerated at the moment. In other words, crime rates will go down when you lock up all the criminals. Or so goes the supposition.

What worries me is that the prison-is-the-solution crowd will, once again, carry the day. And that when and if lots of prison inmates start receiving commutations, fear of rising crime rates will stir the keep-’em-locked-up true believers (especially within the Justice Department) to find a way to end Obama’s grand experiment with commutations.

As if it needs any more challenges than it already has. Just read the Politico article. It left me pretty deflated.

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