One of the most discouraging and dangerous problems in our criminal justice system is the staggering rate of recidivism that puts former inmates back into the revolving door of repetitious incarceration. If our prison system was a corporation it would have been bankrupt decades ago. Correctional institutions are supposed to do what the name implies; change the behavior of offenders before releasing them back into society. Yet, according to recent Bureau of Justice statistics, within 3 years of release, about two-thirds (67.8%) of released inmates were rearrested. Within 5 years of release it rose to about three-quarters (76.6%) of inmates that were back in prison. Therefore, it’s blatantly evident that the system isn’t working. The failure of the system has devastating effects on an unsuspecting public that is being victimized again and again.
Perhaps there’s a need for different approaches to rehabilitation. Bridges To Life (BTL), a non-profit, 501c3 organization based in Houston, Texas, with satellite offices throughout the state, including Dallas, is a faith-based restorative justice program for incarcerated men and women that provides a platform for life-changing transformation. Starting in one prison in Richmond, Texas, with 41 inmate graduates in 1999, over 47,000 men and women have graduated from the BTL program in 163 prisons and alternative facilities.
Jim Buffington is Chief Operating Officer for BTL www.bridgestolife.org . Before coming to BTL, Jim had a 30-year business career in financial/legal services and aerospace. When Jim was 12 years old, his mother was found murdered in the back seat of her car. A year later, his father and two other men were arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for the crime. Jim traveled a long road of pain and betrayal that could have led to a life of bitterness, but instead he chose another path: one of healing and forgiveness. Jim, a Dallas resident, began volunteering with BTL in 2004 and joined the staff in 2016. He also volunteers with Bill Glass Prison Ministry, Prison Entrepreneurship Program, is a camp counselor for Royal Family Kids, and serves as a Board Member for Trinity Kids, Inc. and Lillian Smith Family Violence Foundation.
BTL is a volunteer-led restorative justice program conducted in prisons and alternative facilities, utilizing a unique 14-week curriculum focused on victim impact. A “project” is the BTL term for each incidence of their 14-week program in any facility. BTL will conduct nearly 200 projects in 2019! Over the course of each 14-week BTL project, volunteers meet weekly with inmate participants inside the prison unit. Using their Restoring Peace book and study guide, volunteer facilitators guide their groups through the BTL curriculum, which is centered on responsibility, repentance, and restitution. In addition to the study of these concepts, the BTL process includes the critical step of crime victim volunteers sharing the story of their crime experience.
In this way, offenders hear firsthand how criminal actions affect not only the victims, but the families and friends of those victims, as well as society at large. This unique “victim impact” approach sparks empathy in offenders, the first step in accepting responsibility for their actions. BTL instills hope and change in the hearts of offender participants and embraces victims of crime, promoting healing on both sides. As a result of participation in the program, offenders are more likely to demonstrate that they have been rehabilitated once they are back in mainstream society by paying taxes, supporting their families, and contributing to their communities, rather than being a financial and emotional liability. In the interview, Jim talks about the experiences that led him to a faith-based answer to this national crisis.