Changing the way we talk about criminal justice: Craig DeRoche and Justice Fellowship

Craig DeRoche of Justice Fellowship ( photo)
Craig DeRoche of Justice Fellowship ( photo)

Sometimes, the things I stumble into are far more rewarding than the things I plan. Such was the case at the recent Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. I had looked forward to a panel on abolition of the death penalty, featuring two speakers not normally found in a roomful of social conservatives. I saw shortly before I left for Washington that the scheduled panel on criminal justice had been changed: new name, new speakers. Not what I expected.

And that’s fine. If I’d gotten what I expected, I’d have missed the pleasure of meeting Craig DeRoche, executive director of Justice Fellowship. I met him in the conference’s exhibit hall, and I wish I’d had the presence of mind to record our conversation. A real interview would be a treat.

Hearing how I had been hoping for a conference session on the death penalty, he warned me that wasn’t his topic for the day. Instead, he was there to speak about criminal justice and addiction, and how so many people tied up in one are also tied up in the other. Craig describes his mission this way: “to change the American justice system and the way we treat those afflicted with or affected by addiction.” Justice Fellowship is the advocacy arm of Prison Fellowship, the ministry founded by the late Chuck Colson.

Craig isn’t working from a theoretical perspective. A former Speaker of the House in Michigan, his addiction to alcohol led to two arrests. He knows firsthand about rehab and court-ordered conditions, and about how addiction and prosecution affect whole families. He now knows what a public official’s life looks like to search engines after a fall from grace. He knows what it feels like to realize that prosecutors just might have political motives for some of their decisions. Now, with so much behind him, he could be forgiven for wanting to retreat from the public eye. Instead, he’s guiding Justice Fellowship.

At the end of our conversation, he handed me his book Highly Functional, gratis. I stayed up late that evening to read it. I recommend it for the down-to-earth manner in which he narrates the messiest parts of his life without sensationalism or self-pity. How he got from where he was – youngest Speaker ever in the Michigan House – to where he is makes for a story that just might hit some familiar notes for anyone who is or has lived with a “highly functional” substance abuser.

Towards the end of the book, he relates a story about how legislation supported by the Justice Foundation has done well in some states. Asked how he got bipartisanship on the bills, he rejected the very term. Instead, he said, principles and values won the day. It’s a fascinating chapter of the book, enriched by the comments on the same bills by an NAACP executive who supported them. Craig’s summary gave me something to think about.

I assured the crowd that the ability to convene discussions about principles and where they align has been discouraged in modern politics and the media. The government, federally and in the states, is set up where no one can win outright. This is done for good reason. To believe that compromise involves the disregard of principle is to feed on and encourage the worst human behavior possible for a person in elective office.

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