When President Donald Trump ran on helping forgotten Americans, perhaps not everyone realized until his recent announcement supporting bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation that this included those who are most out of sight – people in prison. To be sure, those behind bars made poor choices. However, President Trump recognizes we all have an interest in making sure they return to society ready to be law-abiding, productive citizens.
Having organized prison ministry programs for many years, I have seen firsthand that we cannot afford to ignore our fellow Americans in prison and the moral imperative to help guide them to a better life. This does not mean naiveté about the existence of evil, including the fact that a small segment of people cannot be rehabilitated and should never be released. But just as Jesus sent his apostles to the remotest parts of the earth so the gospel might spread its light in all the world, we must act today to ensure our policies infuse hope into the darkest corners of our nation.
That’s why nearly 3,000 faith leaders have come together to support the First Step Act. The core of the legislation would help rebuild broken lives by providing incentives for federal prisoners to participate in rehabilitation programs that are proven to reduce recidivism. Just like in the real world where there is a connection between our deeds and how we are treated by others and the government, this provision of the Act will enable all but the most serious prisoners to earn time towards release to a halfway house by successfully completing treatment programs.
Another provision of the First Step Act would outlaw the shackling of mothers giving birth in prison. While most Americans were surprised this occurred, I haven’t met anyone who thinks it should be allowed to continue. The sanctity of life does not end at the prison gates and just because someone committed crime we should not strip them of their dignity inherent in being created in the image of God.
It is also partly because all people are unique and valuable that we must take care in making sentencing decisions to consider the specific facts of the case. The person’s life work, including both prior offenses and admirable conduct, must be accounted for so we don’t judge someone solely based on the worst day or moment of their life.
Yet an adherence to rigid mandatory minimum laws means that federal judges too often must impose a sentence that cannot be adjusted based the specific facts of the case. Fortunately, four modest but important sentencing reform provisions affecting nonviolent offenders are included in the Senate version of the First Step Act.
One case that would have been covered by these targeted sentencing provisions is that of Weldon Angelos. He was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison because he dealt marijuana while possessing an otherwise legal gun, even though he never used or even brandished it. In his case and countless others, federal judges, including many conservatives, lamented that they were left with no choice but to impose an unjust sentence in cases involving low-level drug offenders.
Even as we feel a moral command to ensure our criminal justice system reflects our values, it is important to remember that the First Step Act is not an article of faith, but based on proven results in states across the country. Indeed, it is red states most of all like Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina that have proven we can both cut crime and incarceration at the same time.
Part of their recipe for success was expanding proven rehabilitation programs, including those with a faith component, that change the way prisoners think so they develop empathy and focus on long-term goals rather than immediate gratification. The First Step Act invests $250 million over the next decade in such programs, but research suggests by reducing recidivism we will obtain a strong return on this investment.Congress must act now to follow the President and many law enforcement organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police in supporting the First Step Act. Only by lifting up those who have been forgotten can we all end up in a better place.
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