The Church should push federal criminal justice reform bill to the finish line
President Donald Trump recently met with pastors from around the country to discuss criminal justice reform and the Church’s history of visiting prisoners and assisting those returning home. The same day, the president signaled his interest in adding sentencing reform measures to the FIRST STEP Act, a prison reform bill passed by the House in May. The bipartisan Act seeks to ensure safer neighborhoods by better preparing federal prisoners to reenter society.
I’m thrilled to hear the President signaling support for both sentencing and prison reform. There are values-based reasons for restoring more proportional sentencing and for increasing rehabilitative opportunities in prison.
The federal prison population includes over 180,000 men and women. Approximately 50 percent of the people incarcerated are there for drug offenses. In 2015, I had the privilege of testifying alongside Debi Campbell before the Senate Judiciary Committee. At an ultimate low-point in her life and fueled by addiction, Debi and her then-husband began selling methamphetamine. Debi was eventually caught and charged with conspiracy to sell 10 kilos of meth.
While the amount of drugs she personally sold was nowhere near 10 kilos, she had become part of a larger group of drug dealers, enabling prosecutors to charge her with conspiracy for the total amount involved. Although it was her first offense, she was sentenced to 20 years. Her four daughters were forced to grow up in foster care. In prison, Debi got sober and pursued a deeper relationship with Christ. Now, post-release, she advocates for reform and has been reunited with her children and grandchildren.
There are too many other women and men like Debi in our federal prisons serving lengthy sentences that don’t match the crime. It’s unjust to punish people beyond what their crime deserves. And isn’t it foolhardy to release a prisoner without sufficient preparation? Yet this happens every day. The FIRST STEP Act would help change this.
The sentencing reforms now on the table to be added to the bill would make minor adjustments to correct disproportional penalties and give judges more discretion in certain drug cases.
Under the Act, men and women in federal prison would complete vocational training, educational courses, or other transformative programs. The bill would also prevent discrimination against faith-based programming and volunteers. Prisoners who complete programs may earn credit to transfer to halfway houses or home confinement, easing their transition back into the community and further reducing the likelihood that they will re-offend.
This year alone, more than 42,000 people will be released from federal prison. Many will return to their communities with strained relationships and sparse job skills, stacking the odds against their future upward mobility. This is detrimental both to their individual trajectories, their families, and their neighborhoods. But if they are equipped to succeed through the FIRST STEP Act, we will all reap the benefit in the form of safer communities, economic growth, and healthier families.
The Senate must act swiftly to incorporate sentencing reforms into the FIRST STEP Act and pass it before the year is over. The president sounded hopeful in his meeting with pastors, saying, “I think we’ll be able to do it.” The key word in his statement is “we.”
As Christians, we should demand just and proportional sentencing. We should rejoice in seeing lives transformed, families reconciled, and communities equipped to flourish. We should engage in the public square, insisting that our elected officials pursue justice that restores.