Crime rates in the United States have been steadily falling this decade, but the declines have not slowed the growth of the nation's prison population. Due in part to a wave of get-tough laws, many of them requiring longer sentences, almost 1.8 million Americans are incarcerated, giving the land of the free the second-highest confinement rate in the world behind only Russia.

America's punishment-heavy approach to crime carries a big price tag. State and federal governments, faced with prison overcrowding problems, are spending billions of dollars on new prison-construction projects, or on contracts with a growing industry of private "corrections" firms.

And many observers say the criminal- justice system exacts an even higher social cost. Studies have found that as many as 75 percent of those released from jails or prisons will be back behind bars within four years, and in many cases, these men, women, and juveniles have neither the desire nor the ability to become productive members of society.

"Our current system of retributive justice is focused on who did what, and how much we are going to hurt them for doing it," says Emmett Solomon, a Southern Baptist from Huntsville, Texas, who has been working in prisons since 1956. He is co-organizer of a Dallas conference in April that promises to be one of the biggest gatherings of prison ministries ever (for details, call 1-800-949-0063).

Solomon and others are at the forefront of a revolutionary approach to prison ministry that is simultaneously working on two distinct levels. Methodologically, these cutting-edge prison ministers are transitioning from traditional evangelistic prison ministry to more holistic approaches that focus on discipleship and relationships, both within prison ...

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