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Prison reform and campaign 2024

Amid political rhetoric, Christians must lead with conviction in debates about justice

Matthew Charles, a First Step Act beneficiary, speaks at the 2019 Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act Celebration at the White House on April 1, 2019. Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik

Prison reform and campaign 2024
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As believers, we hold dear the values of protecting the vulnerable and seeking justice for victims of crime. But in a politically charged climate, it’s easy for campaign soundbites to drown out other Christian virtues.

Across our nation, too many incarcerated individuals and their families are bearing the weight of punishments that don’t fit the crimes committed and harm done. In many cases, there is inconsistent access to quality prison programs, like education and job training, that would equip returning citizens for reentry success. It’s in instances like these that a system meant to pursue justice and rehabilitation fails to disrupt cycles of crime.

In the New Testament, Jesus calls his followers to remember and care for those behind bars (Matthew 25:34-46). Many American Christians have boldly taken up this command to serve their incarcerated neighbors through a nationwide web of prison and reentry ministries. One example of this critical work is Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program, which provides the children of incarcerated individuals with gifts and supplies they need throughout the year—in fact, just this past Christmas, more than 5,000 churches and organizations stepped in to fill this gap for many families.

American evangelicals have also brought these values to bear in the public square, informing the conversation about justice. Enacted by the Trump administration and a Republican Congress, the First Step Act has contributed to greater fairness and rehabilitation in federal prisons and criminal law for almost five years—all without compromising public safety. Conservative evangelical leaders saved this historic reform from gridlock at a critical moment. The staff, supporters, and volunteers of both Prison Fellowship and Faith and Freedom Coalition worked tirelessly to make this law possible. This included successful advocacy for robust religious liberty protections and broad access to faith-based programming in federal prisons.

The law’s success is also evident in the stories of transformed former prisoners who are now contributing positively to society, like Matthew Charles, who is fully making good on his second chance and was even invited to attend a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. However, as the political cycle has heated up and candidates vie for attention, some have begun to criticize the law, and even call for its repeal.

We shouldn’t allow this rhetoric to deter us.

The reason we knew the First Step Act would work is that states had already demonstrated leadership in reshaping the justice system.

It’s not hard to see the need for better justice policies when we encounter gaps in quality rehabilitative programming and persistently high rates of reoffending, unemployment, and homelessness after prison—and, of course, the grave challenge of deadly violence experienced in our cities. As Christians, we must strive for a criminal justice system that takes crime seriously, holds people accountable the right way, and offers clear pathways to lives of productivity and purpose.

The First Step Act has done just that. It has reduced mandatory life sentences for a third drug conviction, created data points to help identify those at risk of reoffending, and provided programs to help inmates be productive and supported when released. Close to half of the inmates who leave federal facilities will return. However, that number drops to only 12.4 percent for prisoners released under the First Step Act.

The reason we knew the First Step Act would work is that states had already demonstrated leadership in reshaping the justice system. For example, the Texas model exemplifies the infusion of biblically informed thinking into criminal justice policies. Instead of creating more space for more beds, for more prisoners, Texas started to tackle some of the reasons the incarceration rate was so high. They addressed underlying issues and made unprecedented investments in addiction and mental health treatment across the state’s correction facilities. And it worked, with both crime and incarceration rates decreasing at the same time.

Recent state-level successes show that American Christians are not stepping back from the hard work. Take the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s work on Minnesota’s Clean Slate Act, which makes it easier for people to clear their record of low-level, non-violent crimes so they’re able to get jobs, housing, and an education. In 2022, Prison Fellowship spearheaded changes that made Oklahoma a national leader in creating fair and safe pathways for people with a criminal record to obtain licensed work in high-paying, high-demand careers.

The gospel is good news for all: the sick, the vulnerable, and those who commit and suffer from crime. However, this truth can easily get lost amid campaign sound bites if we waver in our commitment to a more fair and effective criminal justice system. Christ-followers must continue to lead from our convictions if we are to secure our future as a nation marked by safer communities, greater success after incarceration, and restored families.

Heather Rice-Minus

Heather Rice-Minus is executive vice president of strategic initiatives for Prison Fellowship.

Timothy Head

Timothy Head is executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

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