WASHINGTON—Christian leaders hope to cut through Washington’s partisanship and find common ground on an overlooked crisis: fixing the U.S. criminal justice system.
The United States has a serious problem. Together, Americans account for 5 percent of the world’s population but inhabit 25 percent of its jail cells. On any given night, 2.2 million Americans sit behind bars. And once they return to society, many fail to reintegrate. Within three years of release, about 40 percent of former prisoners return to jail. An estimated 65 million citizens have a criminal record, curbing their chances of finding a decent a job or even a place to live.
On Tuesday, Christian leaders led by Prison Fellowship signed a "Justice Declaration" committing to change the conversation on incarceration and help garner support for lawmakers to rethink federal prison policies.
“On account of our Christian faith, we call for a justice system that is fair and redemptive for all," said James Ackerman, Prison Fellowship president.
So far about 100 Christian leaders have signed the declaration and several presented it, along with an 11-page white paper, to Republican leaders in hopes of getting the ball rolling on federal reforms.
But lawmakers on Capitol Hill struggle to agree on anything. Each day brings new fights over healthcare legislation, the federal budget, and what to do about Russia’s election meddling. But that’s not the case for criminal justice policy.
“I find very few people who think the status quo works just fine,” Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told me. “We’re all saying the same thing—we just need to work together and get something done.”
Criminal justice conversations usually fall into one of two camps. Most Republicans campaign on being tough on crime, not letting people take advantage of U.S. laws, and punishing perpetrators. Most Democrats harp on injustice, noting minorities are too often the victims of unfair law enforcement and sentencing.
Moore, a declaration signer, told me both groups ultimately want the same thing: fewer people committing crimes and justice for those who do.
Conservatives and liberals worked together in the last Congress to draft legislation addressing one of the many justice system failings. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, worked with Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to find a solution for inconsistent mandatory minimum sentencing laws—specifically for nonviolent offenders.
The bipartisan coalition advanced the proposed legislation out of committee but never built enough momentum to schedule a full vote.
Congress often works in fits and starts, and in 2017 it has been hard to coalesce around anything.
“Nothing is really getting done at all in the Congress,” Moore said. “I think that lawmakers ought to see this as an opportunity to break through the logjam and do something that will help the country.”
But politics often is downstream from culture. That’s why Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said Christians have an equal part to play.
“Our job is to help change the wind and help change the conversation,” Salguero said. “Since there is a lot of bipartisan support, I think what this justice declaration is doing is putting a megaphone to the tens of thousands of evangelical Christians who really want this to happen.”
With numerous weighty agenda items on their plates already, Republican leaders have yet to prioritize criminal justice reforms in 2017. But even if they do, lawmakers may not have a green light from the White House.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions was one of the few senators last year who pushed back on the mandatory minimum reform legislation and his opposition apparently hasn’t wavered.
In May, Sessions issued a memorandum to federal prosecutors directing them to fully enforce mandatory minimum sentences.
Prison Fellowship’s Ackerman said one-size-fits-all sentences are a big mistake, but he’s optimistic the Trump administration will be a willing partner for criminal justice reform in the future.