What issue has continued to transcend Washington’s partisan gridlock?
Reforming the criminal justice system.
Folks on both sides of the aisle agree that it is broken, and they are finding significant agreement on how to correct the numerous failings.
EthicsDaily.com has focused regularly on this topic in the past several years, highlighting the faith community’s engagement on the prison front through a documentary film, “Through the Door,” and reporting on several bipartisan initiatives that have been proposed.
Thankfully, this collaboration to affect change within the correction system doesn’t appear to be a “here today, gone tomorrow” phenomenon.
A bipartisan reform proposal known as “The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act” (SRCA) is making its way through the U.S. Congress.
One of the goals of the SRCA is to lower mandatory minimums for certain crimes, including drug-related offenses, and to allow for more judicial discretion in sentencing folks to substance abuse treatment rather than incarceration.
Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor and a GOP presidential hopeful, addressed recently the importance of a focus on treatment rather than punishment for folks struggling with drug addiction.
He engaged the issue by sharing a personal story about his mother contracting lung cancer after years of smoking, which required chemotherapy treatment.
“No one came to me and said … ‘You’re mother was dumb, she started smoking when she was 16, then after we told her it was bad for her she kept doing it, so we’re not going to give her chemotherapy … because she is getting what she deserves,” Christie stated. “No one said that about someone who had cancer. Yet, somehow, if it’s heroin or cocaine or alcohol we say, ‘Well, they decided and they’re getting what they deserved.”
He continued, “I’m pro-life, and I think that if you’re pro-life, that means you have to be pro-life for the whole life, not just the nine months they’re in the womb … The 16-year-old girl on the floor of the county lockup addicted to heroin, I’m pro-life for her, too.”
President Obama also has made headlines recently on the prison front, through a sustained campaign to call attention to this topic.
Beginning last summer, he has made stops across the U.S. to discuss the challenges facing the corrections system and to suggest ways to address them.
This tour has continued into the fall, as he participated in a roundtable discussion on prison reform at Rutgers University last week.
The White House announced, in conjunction with the Rutgers’ visit, seven new federal initiatives “to help promote rehabilitation and reintegration.”
These include urging Congress to “ban the box” that currently requires federal job applicants to indicate prior incarceration, expanding funds for technical training programs and incentives for companies to hire former inmates, and funding an initiative to “test cost-effective ways to help persons cycling between the criminal justice and homeless service systems.”
In addition, 6,600 nonviolent drug offenders in federal prisons received reduced sentences and were released beginning on Oct. 30.
While concerns have been raised about this decision, CNN spoke to Senior U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein, who presided over thousands of hearings for folks being considered for early release.
“‘The first question the judge asks himself is, ‘If I release this person now or shorten the sentence now, will he be a greater danger to the community?’ and the statistics say very clearly no,'” Weinstein told CNN.
How can churches contribute to these efforts to address the challenges facing the correctional system?
First, we can educate ourselves on the issues, seeking to understand accurately the present challenges and the ongoing efforts to repair a broken system.
The film and the website content provide information on the various issues related to reforming the correctional system: expanding drug addiction/substance abuse treatment programs, reform-focus (restorative justice) versus punishment-focus (retributive justice), recidivism reduction initiatives and the stigma associated with incarceration, to name a few topics.
Second, people of faith can support and encourage elected representatives who are transcending Washington’s political gridlock to address the problems in the correctional system.
While there is much to be critical of given the state of national politics, a reality freshman Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) noted recently, we shouldn’t overlook or downplay the instances in which constructive, collaborative initiatives are happening.
Third, congregations can move to the “front lines” by establishing (or refining) prison ministry initiatives modeled on the tried-and-true methods many faith-based nonprofits and local churches are already doing to help folks during incarceration and upon their release. Several of these are highlighted in “Through the Door.”
Prison and post-prison ministry is challenging, messy and it is difficult to know how to measure success, but it is central to Jesus’ moral agenda (see Luke 4 and Matthew 25).
Houses of faith exist in every community across the country, and the stories presented in “Through the Door” reveal that faith makes a positive difference while folks are in prison and upon their release.
With thousands of nonviolent drug offenders receiving early release, a warm welcome and sustained support from faith communities can make a substantive, long-lasting impact on their efforts to reintegrate into society.
People of faith should be an increasingly visible and leading force for good on the prison front.
So, let’s commit to educate ourselves about the issues, praise the elected representatives working to address the challenges and establish (or expand) ministries to folks in prison and upon their return to our communities.
It’s an important means by which we can work to advance the common good.