The federal government took a major step toward criminal justice reform Dec. 18 when the Senate approved legislation backed by a broad coalition that includes the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics entity.
Senators voted 87-12 for the First Step Act, which is designed to promote the rehabilitation and societal reentry of prisoners while maintaining public safety. The bill – which enjoyed backing from every Democratic senator and all but 13 Republicans who opposed it or did not vote – also would reform some sentencing requirements, including in the case of certain drug offenses.
It is anticipated the House of Representatives, which adopted an earlier version of the legislation with a 360-59 vote in May, will pass the Senate-approved bill quickly. President Donald Trump endorsed the measure in November and is expected to sign it into law shortly after the House vote.
The legislation applies only to federal prisons and is an initial effort in what reform advocates hope will be an overhaul of a justice system they consider lacking. The U.S. has often been described as the world’s most incarcerated country.
The bill – which models state reforms – provides training to help inmates prepare for reentry into society, establishes risk assessment procedures for prisoners and enables low- and minimum-risk prisoners to earn time credits so they can potentially serve 12 months or less of their sentences in pre-release custody.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), described the Senate vote as “a tremendous victory, not just for criminal justice reform but for the idea that people really can transcend their silos and work for the common good.”
“I can’t find very many people who would argue that our criminal justice system is working fine as it is,” he told Baptist Press in written comments. “Over the past several years many of us, across the ideological spectrum, have realized that we share, on this, some common concerns.
“Monumental challenges remain on seeing to it that our country deals with ensuring justice for victims while at the same time giving offenders, where possible, the opportunity for a second chance to reform and to contribute to society. Big questions remain about how to end irrational mass incarceration and other issues.
“The First Step Act is just that; it’s a first step,” Moore said. “But the First Step Act is also just that; it’s an act, an act in the right direction. May we see forward momentum toward a justice system that is truer to its name.”
Travis Wussow, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy, said the legislation “will make many deeply needed reforms to our prisons to help men and women re-enter society and live productive lives. The bill also includes important sentencing reforms that ensure that punishments fit the crimes committed.”
The First Step Act has gained support not only from liberals and many conservatives in the Senate, but from both the left and right outside Congress. The endorsing organizations stretch from the American Civil Liberties Union and Center for American Progress to a host of conservative groups, including the ERLC and other evangelical entities, Heritage Action, The American Conservative Union and FreedomWorks.
On the conservative side, Prison Fellowship and Koch Industries helped lead the effort.
Craig DeRoche, Prison Fellowship’s senior vice president of advocacy and public policy, commended the Senate for refusing “to double down on the failed policies of the past.”
The bill’s passage “reflects America’s growing demand for smarter and more restorative solutions to crime,” DeRoche said in a written statement. “Ninety-five percent of those who are incarcerated today will eventually be released back into our neighborhoods – failing to prepare people returning from prison endangers communities and wastes human potential.”
The ERLC and Prison Fellowship collaborated for auxiliary events regarding justice reform this fall at Baptist state conventions in Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. In its partnership with Prison Fellowship, the ERLC also has participated in meetings with state legislators and invited its staff to provide expert analysis on panels at ERLC-sponsored events.
In the Senate, Republican James Lankford, a Southern Baptist, said the First Step Act “balances the need to keep our communities safe while providing an opportunity for prisoners to earn a second chance.”
“This bill creates incentives for inmates to improve themselves, rather than just do time,” the Oklahoma senator said in a written release. “Ultimately, we will never reduce the rate of criminals re-engaging in crime if we do not change the way we incarcerate and rehabilitate our criminals.”
Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey said in a written statement passage of the bill will mark “a meaningful break from the decades of failed policies that led to mass incarceration, which has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, drained our economy, compromised public safety, hurt our children, and disproportionately harmed communities of color while devaluing the very idea of justice in America.”
Some GOP senators and outside organizations expressed concerns the First Step Act would threaten public safety by weakening mandatory minimum sentencing and not preventing some dangerous inmates from release. The final Senate version sought to address at least some concerns by, among other provisions, barring firearm offenders and fentanyl traffickers from earning time credits. The bill also disqualifies from earned time credits offenses such as smuggling foreigners into the country for prostitution, assaulting a law enforcement officer with a deadly weapon, failure to register as a sex offender and trafficking in heroin or methamphetamine.
The legislation clarifies faith-based organizations may provide training in prison.
Statistics demonstrate the need for change in the justice system, reform advocates contend. 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.