How Celebrate Recovery Creates True Reform for Those in the Criminal Justice System

There’s a lot of talk about criminal justice reform, but what good is it if you haven’t transformed the heart of the criminal? 

By Nancy Flory Published on May 15, 2016

A repeat offender lies on a two-inch mattress atop a hard spring frame in an East Texas prison. This time he’s incarcerated for a felony DWI conviction, serving 11 months, five days of a two-year sentence for first-time felons. Even though this is considered his third strike, he’s actually guilty of more DWIs than what’s on paper. He could be serving up to a 10-year-sentence.

He’s not an anomaly. Pleading down sentences is par for the course, says former prosecutor and Stream Senior Editor Rachel Alexander.

In her Townhall piece “No One Serves Jail Time for Smoking Pot,” Alexander says that the “vast majority” of defendants she came across had extensive rap sheets; many had a proven pattern of crimes — often caught with drugs — but were allowed to plead down their sentences. “The outcome was always the same,” Alexander says. “They were allowed to plead guilty to some lesser crime and often escape any jail time.”

In addition, President Obama is calling for the end of mandatory sentences, says Alexander, and actually commuted the sentences of 46 “nonviolent drug offenders.” Obama posted on Facebook, “These men and women were not violent criminals … their punishments didn’t fit the crime.” But if, as Alexander points out, most of these offenders have pleaded down their charges, perhaps the punishment didn’t fit the crime — just not in the way that Obama described.

There is a better way and it begins with the hope and healing in Jesus Christ and the support of those who love Him.

After pleading down charges, commuting sentences and releasing the offenders — violent or nonviolent — then what? Recidivism rates for offenders are quite high. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a 2014 study revealed that two-thirds of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within 3 years and three-quarters were arrested within 5 years. If released offenders continue to commit crimes, why commute sentences? The question then becomes, what’s being done to make sure that offenders stay out of prison? Simply reducing sentences or even requiring AA meetings and drug tests has helped little in the past. What will do the trick?

Celebrate Recovery

There is a better way and it begins with the hope and healing in Jesus Christ and the support of those who love Him. At 18 years old, Danny Duchene was drunk and high on marijuana when he was arrested for his participation in a crime that killed two men. He sat in a cell in a California jail in the throes of withdrawal, looking at a double life sentence, reports Christianity Today. Duchene says once he became sober, the gravity of his actions became very real.

“The full weight of my crimes and what I had done came crashing down on my conscience,” he said. “It was at my lowest point that God’s mercy showed up in my life.” Duchene begged God for forgiveness for his actions and soon began to see opportunities to witness to and disciple others for Christ.

Duchene had served 20 years of his sentence when he heard about Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life and the 40 Days of Purpose accompanying 12-step curriculum. Duchene contacted Warren, who provided the curriculum for the program in Duchene’s jail. In addition, Warren contacted Duchene’s parole board asking for his release; it was granted. Duchene now heads up Saddleback Church’s inmate ministry, overseeing 900 programs in more than 100 prisons in the U.S.

Twenty-five years ago the Christ-centered 12-step recovery program was launched from Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, deriving out of Pastor Rick Warren’s sermon series, “The Road to Recovery.” His then-lay pastor, John Baker, developed workbooks on the series to help people struggling with “hurts, hang-ups and habits,” and Celebrate Recovery was born.

Initially joined by 43 participants, Celebrate Recovery has now helped tens of thousands of people work through difficult situations, such as alcohol and drug addiction and many other “hurts, hang-ups and habits” in a loving, church-based program. Each church follows specific guidelines in executing the program for consistency in experience and results. Generally, a time of fellowship precedes the worship experience and then either a testimony or lesson is shared with the group. If a testimony is shared, it is by an individual who has experienced life-altering hope and change through the program. Following the testimony or lesson, small groups break out by gender for a more intense time of sharing and learning from one another.

Celebrate Recovery Inside, an offshoot of Saddleback Church’s Celebrate Recovery program and the program Duchene now heads, works with inmates to provide support and a 12-step biblical program inside the prison system and networks with local churches to support them as they exit the prison system.

“Celebrate Recovery [Inside] not only focuses on spiritual needs of inmates, but also helps fight against relapses into criminal behavior and aids in reintegration after a prisoner’s release — often by connecting the inmate with a healthy church on the outside,” reports Christianity Today.

The program doesn’t end when the men and women leave prison. “We want to be a safe place for them to come when they get out,” Duchene said. “We want to help them while they’re in, but we’re also inviting local churches and asking for a responsive welcome.”

The Celebrate Recovery Inside program not only addresses recidivism by connecting the offender with a church and 12-step recovery program, it also provides support from folks who’ve been there and truly want the offender to succeed. That’s just what Duchene has experienced. “You feel like you’re worth something,” Duchene said. “So much of your life in [prison], men and women don’t feel like their lives are worth anything. To have someone like Rick Warren show you mercy like he did, and show the worth of what God has done in my life — it’s a weight of worthlessness off your shoulders.”

Celebrate Recovery operates in churches nationwide and addresses many different “hurts, hang-ups and habits.” To find a Celebrate Recovery location near you, click here.

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