The Christian Case for Criminal Justice Reform

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“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.” – Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 1:7.

In recent years, conservatives and liberals have surprisingly joined to reform the criminal justice system. Civil rights activists have long denounced “mass incarceration” policies. But some congressional conservatives, even those from “red” states, have joined in. Grassroots voters, too, of all stripes.

On Nov. 6, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure to restore the voting rights of convicted felons who have served their time – while also electing mostly Republicans.

President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has taken the lead in advocating reform. “President Trump promised to fight for the forgotten men and women of this country — and that includes those in prison,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. The president himself declared April 2018 to be “Second Chance Month.”  

“Affording those who have been held accountable for their crimes an opportunity to become contributing members of society is a critical element of criminal justice,” he proclaimed in a statement issued at the White House. “[It] can reduce our crime rates and prison populations, decrease burdens to the American taxpayer, and make America safer.”

The House passed a crime reform bill last spring with strong bipartisan support, the First Step Act, which Trump has promised to sign. According to the House website, this legislation directs the Department of Justice to assess prisoner recidivism risk and develop plans to reduce it. In short, this bill emphasizes rehabilitation.

“I know from experience that dangerous criminals exist — individuals who are incapable of or uninterested in rehabilitation and change,” Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican co-sponsoring the Senate version of the bill, wrote recently. “We should throw the book at those people. But my time as a prosecutor also tells me that not every criminal is dangerous or incapable of living a productive life.

“My faith as a Christian teaches me that many people are capable of redemption,” Lee added. “And my instincts as a conservative make me believe that the government can be reformed to work better.”

Despite opposition from Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, a powerful voice among Christian conservatives, who argued the bill is too lenient toward drug offenders and gives too much discretion to judges, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought the First Step Act to the floor yesterday afternoon. It passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, 87 to 12. The House, which passed a different version of criminal justice reform earlier, is expected to take up the bill later this week. 

Shortly after the Senate vote, President Trump tweeted his congratulations, saying, “America is the greatest Country in the world and my job is to fight for ALL citizens, even those who have made mistakes. Congratulations to the Senate on the bi-partisan passing of a historic Criminal Justice Reform Bill. This will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it. In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved. I look forward to signing this into law!”

Since the essence of Christianity is forgiveness, coming up with better ways to re-integrate prisoners into society seems right. It might even pay some political dividends down the road. Christian conservatives would be wise to embrace the First Step Act. It’s about redemption.

Although the number of people caught up in the criminal justice system has been decreasing for a decade now, the numbers are still very high. On any given day, according to the most recent data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 740,000 Americans are in local jails and 1.5 million are housed in state and federal prisons. When you add the more than 4 million people freed on parole or probation, one in every 38 adults in this country is under correctional supervision. Almost all of them have families – family members who vote. But if it is only concerned with punishment, a system designed to make law-abiding Americans safer may be at a point of diminishing returns. Studies show that within five years of release, about three-quarters of convicted offenders will be re-arrested. This is not an argument for blind leniency toward the guilty. Such an approach would likely lead to more crime. It’s an argument, both from a Christian and a secular public policy viewpoint, for fervent rehabilitation efforts.

Religious conservatives have often taken the lead in ministering to inmates. Charles Colson (of Watergate fame) started the Prison Fellowship Ministry. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, in partnership with the American Conservative Union, heavily funded criminal justice reform efforts.

Minorities are disproportionately more likely to be both convicts and crime victims. African-Americans, for instance, are 13 percent of the U.S. population but make up 40 percent of prisoners. Government programs aimed at reducing this disparity by rehabilitating felons so they commit fewer crimes should be attempted because they are the right thing to do – and will make our communities safer.

But let’s not be shy about considering the positive political possibilities. Any rehabilitation policy that reduces the number of African-Americans going back to jail will surely be popular. If Republicans could double their (now miniscule) share of the black vote, it would go a long way toward helping them carry such key states as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. As Martin Luther King said, “There are moments when the politically expedient can be morally wise.”

It is well known that religious voters provided the margin of victory for President Trump. When he proclaims, “I am committed to advancing reform efforts to prevent crime, improve re-entry, and reduce recidivism,” it would be a good idea for Christian conservatives to follow. Devout Christian parents often tell their children to ask: “What would Jesus do?” It’s pretty obvious He would try to redeem as many convicts as possible. The First Step Act will do just that when President Trump signs it into law. 

Bruce DuMont is the host of “Beyond the Beltway,” a national radio program and YouTube show.

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