A broad and diverse coalition that includes the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics entity is pushing reforms in America’s justice system to foster the rehabilitation and societal re-entry of prisoners.
Prison Fellowship, the well-known Christian ministry to prisoners and their families, has spearheaded the effort in April through its Second Chance Month initiative. President Donald Trump issued a proclamation declaring April as Second Chance Month, and the U.S. Senate approved a resolution to the same effect.
The Prison Fellowship-led effort – with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) one of the more than 150 partners – seeks to reform policies and programs to help prisoners become rehabilitated, restored and prepared for re-entry into society, while assuring public safety. Many of the partners are not religious, but many are motivated by their Christian worldview.
“There is no doubt that crime is a moral issue,” ERLC President Russell Moore told Baptist Press in written comments. “Our response to crime, however, is no less a moral issue.
“It is precisely because the church cares about justice that followers of Jesus should work toward a criminal justice system that metes out judgment for the purpose of restoration and rehabilitation,” he said.
Advocates for justice reform point to statistics they say demonstrate the need for change in what is described as the world’s most incarcerated country. According to Prison Fellowship:
- About 65 million Americans, or one-fourth of the adult population, have a criminal record.
- 2.2 million men and women are incarcerated in the United States.
- Nearly 700,000 prisoners return to their communities each year.
- Two-thirds of prisoners who are released are arrested again.
- 2.7 million children have a parent in prison.
- More than 48,000 legal barriers confront former prisoners seeking “second chances.”
“Thus, it is smart on crime for us to implement a restorative approach to criminal justice with an eye towards [people] returning to our communities who are healthier and more productive than they were when they went to prison in the first place,” said Prison Fellowship President James Ackerman in a March 19 forum at the Museum of the Bible in Washington.
Prisoners need “a second chance” to step into a purpose and a plan God has for their lives, he said.
Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel of Koch Industries, told the audience during the forum’s panel discussion, “Ideally, our justice system should be less about punishment and incapacitation and much more about reformation, rehabilitation and redemption. Our criminal justice system, unfortunately, fails to provide opportunities for redemption for many of those who have paid their debt in full to society and are hungry for and have earned and deserve a second chance.”
Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., said during the discussion, “[We] have swung the pendulum way too far, assuming that people don’t deserve second chances.
“The bar has been set very, very low in this country about what’s right and what’s wrong about whether we are going to be a restorative country or we’re going to be punitive,” he said.
Much of the panel discussion focused on proportional sentences and barriers that prevent former prisoners from flourishing in their communities.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., a former prosecutor, questioned the effectiveness of long sentences for drug and economic offenses.
“Do we really think there’s a correlation between the length of incarceration and the change in your behavior?,” Gowdy asked during the discussion. “What you do with economic and non-violent crimes, the longer you incarcerate someone the more you guarantee they’re not going to have a successful re-entry back into society. I don’t know what you’re supposed to learn the 20th year in prison for drugs that you couldn’t learn the second year.
“How is it a second chance if no one will ever forgive and forget the original action? So you’ve got to view second chances within the context of what’s a proportional consequence for that underlying act,” he said.
Jerry Blassingame, senior pastor of Soteria Christian Fellowship in Greenville, S.C., told the audience a “level playing field [is] still not there for me” nearly 20 years after serving a sentence for a drug crime.
Though he said he would still have a difficult time getting a job, Blassingame has helped about 5,000 men in their re-entry after incarceration through a program he developed while in prison. Converted to Christ while in a Greenville jail, Blassingame started a nonprofit organization after prison that includes a “robust mentoring program” and has started a string of businesses to help former prisoners.
“[I] would just love for America to see that people who have served their time shouldn’t do a life sentence,” he said.
Panelists at a breakout session during the MLK50 conference April 3-4 in Memphis also called for justice reform. The ERLC and The Gospel Coalition co-sponsored the conference that honored the late Martin Luther King Jr.
James Kirkwood, a Memphis pastor and longtime police officer, said the church must call for reform but it is not speaking with a unified voice on the issue.
“Criminal justice reform is really a much needed reform in America,” he said. “[R]eform must take place.”
Julie Warren, state director of Tennessee and Kentucky for the conservative organization Right on Crime, said in the breakout session, “We need to start talking about restoration, because that’s where public safety and communities really are healed.”
Brent Leatherwood, the ERLC’s director of strategic partnerships, said of the entity’s work on the issue, “As the ERLC engages the full spectrum of human dignity, justice reform issues are a major part of that. It was natural for [the ERLC and Prison Fellowship] to come together to help bring more attention to reform efforts that are taking place in Congress and in state capitals across the country.”
In its partnership with Prison Fellowship, the ERLC has participated in meetings with state legislators, helped identify people who will be advocates for Prison Fellowship nationally, invited its staff to provide expert analysis on panels at ERLC-sponsored events and will help it engage with some Baptist state conventions later this year, Leatherwood said.
Among the other partners in Prison Fellowship’s Second Chance initiative are the National Association of Evangelicals, American Civil Liberties Union, Christian Legal Society, National Hispanic Leadership Conference, The American Conservative Union and Center for American Progress.
Prison Fellowship and other justice reform advocates expressed disappointment April 25 when the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee postponed a vote on the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, H.R. 3356, which is designed to reward prisoners who complete a program to reduce rearrests. The committee may vote on the legislation the week of May 7-11.
Prison Fellowship, founded by the late Charles Colson, is the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners and their families. It also is a leading advocate for criminal justice reform.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)