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June 28, 2008 ­ New York Times (NY)

On Religion:

Unlikely Allies on a Former Wedge Issue

By Samuel G. Freedman

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

During his years as the attorney general of Virginia, Mark Earley periodically visited his state's prisons. In a very real way, he was looking at the human consequences of his career as a public servant, the men and women jailed for fixed, lengthy sentences without parole under laws Mr. Earley had endorsed. Not surprisingly, many inmates pulled back a few steps when introduced to their visitor.

Eventually, though, Mr. Earley took their measure. What he discovered, he recalled in a recent interview, were "not the Ted Bundys, the mass murderers" but "kids who reminded me of my kids, serving 5, 10, 15 years for drugs and going out and being rearrested again."

In those moments of recognition, Mr. Earley began a startling transformation from a tough-on-crime crusader to an advocate for prison reform and a prominent critic of the very type of drug laws he had formerly promoted. Since leaving the attorney's general's position in 2001, Mr. Earley has taken his new cause to a position as president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, a national organization based in the Washington suburbs.

Motivated both by religious faith and a secular analysis of public policy, Mr. Earley and the fellowship's vice president, Pat Nolan, a former California legislator, have regularly testified before Congress, written op-ed essays and given speeches on behalf of efforts to roll back mandatory-minimum sentencing, equalize penalties for crack and powder cocaine, and offer nonviolent offenders treatment rather than incarceration, among other initiatives.

On the surface a redoubt of the religious right, firmly rooted in evangelical Christianity and conservative politics, the Prison Fellowship Ministries' liberal position on such issues underscores the increasing irrelevance of such rigid categories.

The group's role in criminal justice bears similarity to the stance taken by evangelical leaders like Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church in Southern California, on global warming, AIDS prevention and Third World poverty.

"What's distinct is that we're in an 'Aha!' moment now," Mr. Earley, 53, said in a phone conversation. "The crime issue used to be such a driving wedge between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and now it's not. In the presidential campaign this year, when have you heard crime as a wedge issue? It's a common-ground issue, and no one would have envisioned that in the '70s and '80s."

Indeed, an earlier, opposite version of bipartisanship during the 1990s led to the proliferation of severe antidrug laws and a boom in prison construction. President Bill Clinton in 1994 introduced a $30 billion anticrime bill, a main element in his effort to move the Democratic Party toward the center, if not the right, on the law-and-order issue.

To whatever degree the pendulum has now swung toward second thoughts about drug laws, the efforts of a group like Prison Ministry Fellowship have been both a cause and an effect.

What is indisputable is that those efforts have made for an unexpected coalition. While heading into the Capitol one day last year, Mr. Nolan recalled, he was spontaneously embraced and called Baby by Representative Maxine Waters, a Democrat, who had been his political antagonist when both served in the California Legislature.

"What the Prison Fellowship brings to the discussion is a different approach, a different perspective, that says this is not a liberal-versus-conservative debate," said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a group based in Washington, D.C. "This is about what is effective policy and compassionate policy."

Last year the prison-reform movement won Congressional passage of the Second Chance Act, which supports job training, education and other services for prisoners being released. Also in 2007, the federal Sentencing Commission amended its guidelines to stop penalizing crimes involving crack more severely than those involving powder cocaine. The governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, a Republican, reversed the state's lifetime ban on voting by felons.

What brought Mr. Earley and Mr. Nolan into the debate was a mix of factors. Before their arrival, Prison Fellowship Ministries -- founded by Charles Colson after he served a prison sentence for his role in the Watergate scandal -- had already staked out reformist positions on prison rape and prisoner rehabilitation.

Mr. Earley referred to his political evolution as "an attitude-adjustment by God." Mr. Nolan, 58, experienced his own road-to-Damascus moment while serving a two-year prison sentence in the mid-1990s on a corruption charge.

"I went into prison believing in God, and I came out knowing him," he said. "I understood how much he loved us, even in a dark place."

Practical reasoning coincided with revelation. Nationally, Mr. Earley had seen the population of state and federal prisons triple to 1.5 million over 20 years, and spending on corrections increase by 125 percent. The result, he came to believe, was that "the people we sent to jail were coming out without rehabilitation, without drug treatment, more bitter and more antisocial than they went in."

Not every precinct of the religious right has been persuaded. Julie Stewart, president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said her organization had been repeatedly rebuffed by Focus on the Family, the influential and powerful group led by the Rev. James Dobson. Still, the drug war's dissidents now clearly exist on both sides of the partisan and ideological divide.

"In a way, that's a religious experience, too," Mr. Nolan said of the unlikely alliance. "Doesn't the Bible tell us the lion and lamb should lie down together?"

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