The Stew Reporting on government and politics

Prison reform bill embraces faith-based solutions

Politics | Ministries like Prison Fellowship will have more chances to help inmates prepare for release
by Harvest Prude
Posted 12/20/18, 04:38 pm

WASHINGTON—The sweeping criminal justice reform bill that passed Congress this week offers Christian groups increased opportunities to minister to federal inmates.

The First Step Act lists faith-based programs as an option for inmates who want to earn time off their sentences by preparing for a productive life after prison. Before, faith-based programs such as Prison Fellowship Academy, a yearlong anti-recidivism curriculum, were lumped under chaplaincy services, so inmates could not earn time-off credits through them, said Heather Rice-Minus, vice president of governmental affairs for Prison Fellowship.

“There’s a demand for programming, and groups like ours at Prison Fellowship are ready to meet that demand,” she said.

Prison Fellowship Academy tackles subjects like addiction, finances, parenting, and family from a Christian worldview. In Minnesota, the state’s Department of Corrections found that graduates of the academy had a recidivism rate of 0.8 percent, compared with the state average of 40 percent.

Anti-recidivism efforts are a key component of the criminal justice bill. The act also gives judges more discretion applying federal sentencing laws, corrects sentencing disparities related to drug offenses, and allows prisoners to earn increased visitation privileges. It aims to copy the efforts of states like Texas, which has reduced recidivism levels by heavily investing in transformative classes and programs that allow inmates who participate to earn early release into halfway houses or home confinement.

There are close to 181,000 federal inmates, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the recidivism rate for federal prisoners is 49 percent, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The United States also has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 2.3 million people imprisoned, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Rice-Minus said she hopes that the focus on transformative programs, and particularly the inclusion of faith-based ones, will help reduce those rates. “Faith is such an important component, we believe—the primary component to seeing people transform their lives,” she said.

The House passed the First Step Act 360-59 in May, but it stalled for months in the Senate. The bill gained more attention in mid-November when President Donald Trump said he supported it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., resisted bringing up the bill because not all Republicans supported it. It took the combined lobbying of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and some pressuring tweets from Trump to change McConnell’s mind. After he relented and brought it to a vote on the Senate floor Tuesday night, it passed 82-12.

Because of additions, primarily sentencing-reform, the bill had to go through the House again. It passed there Thursday afternoon by a vote of 359-36.

“This is a great bi-partisan achievement for everybody,” Trump tweeted after the vote. “When both parties work together we can keep our Country safer. A wonderful thing for the U.S.A.!!”

The bill had been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, which is the largest U.S. law enforcement labor organization, and a range of unlikely allies, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Heritage Foundation, and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Rice-Minus said the next step is to focus on implementing effective reforms: “We want to see people transformed. We believe in redemption. … We don’t want the criminal justice system to be a revolving door. We want them to go home as good citizens and good neighbors.”

Associated Press/Photo by Carolyn Kaster Associated Press/Photo by Carolyn Kaster Paul Ryan shakes hands after his farewell speech Wednesday.

Ryan bids Congress farewell

In a farewell address Wednesday, departing House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called the passing of last year’s tax reform bill his signature achievement while acknowledging his goal of reining in the federal debt fell short.

The speech, delivered to more than 100 people at the Library of Congress, caps his two-decade career as a public servant.

The advocate for small government conservatism won election to the House of Representatives in 1998 at age 28. He later chaired the House Budget Committee and in 2012 became GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s running mate. In 2015, he became chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee but was soon elevated to House speaker after his predecessor, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, resigned. In April, Ryan announced he would not seek reelection.

In the half-hour address, Ryan said that big issues like immigration, poverty, and the debt will remain perplexing problems future lawmakers must tackle. The federal deficit continued to spike under a Republican-controlled Congress, growing from $438 billion in 2015 to $779 billion in 2018. “Certainly one Congress cannot solve all that ails us,” he said.

He expressed strong regret for not reducing entitlement programs, calling it Congress’ “greatest unfinished business.”

Ryan celebrated the most recent Congress as “the most productive we’ve had in a generation,” noting lawmakers passed 1,175 bills, though some stalled in the Senate. He also celebrated presiding over the biggest tax cut in decades and boosting military spending.

The outgoing House speaker also spent a few minutes criticizing the rancorous state of politics, saying that “shopworn denunciations,” outrage, and disagreement have led to “intense distrust.”

But ultimately he described himself as an optimist: “I leave here convinced we face no challenge that cannot be solved by putting pen to paper on good sound policy.”

Ryan leaves the House in the hands of a Democratic majority after his party lost what will likely be a net of 40 seats after the midterm elections. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is set to succeed him as the top leader of the reduced band of Republicans.

The 48-year-old Ryan has not signaled what he will do next, other than spend time with his family. He said earlier this year the only government job he would want someday is to serve as U.S. ambassador to Ireland. —H.P.

Associated Press/Photo by Mark Humphrey Associated Press/Photo by Mark Humphrey Sen. Lamar Alexander

Alexander to leave Senate in 2020

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., announced he will retire in 2020, sparing him a possibly difficult primary challenge and leaving the Senate without a key bipartisan dealmaker.

Alexander was elected to the Senate in 2002 and previously served two terms as Tennessee’s governor. A recent, failed effort saw him work with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to stabilize the Affordable Care Act after Republicans fell short of repealing Obamacare last year.

Alexander would have faced tough primary challenges from Tea Party Republicans in 2020, as the party continues to remake itself under President Donald Trump.

“I have gotten up every day thinking that I could help make our state and country a little better, and gone to bed most nights thinking that I have,” Alexander said in a statement. “I will continue to serve with that same spirit during the remaining two years of my term.” —Anne K. Walters

Nevada has first female-majority legislature

Local officials in Las Vegas appointed two women to fill vacant seats in the state Assembly earlier this week, making Nevada the first state in which women hold the majority of seats in the legislature.

Clark County Commissioners named Rochelle Thuy Nguyen and Beatrice Angela Duran, both Democrats, to seats that had been vacated by lawmakers who won higher offices in November’s elections. The state’s 42-member Assembly will include 23 women, and nine women will serve in the 21-seat Senate, leaving women with 32 out of 63 seats overall.

The development caps a historic election for female candidates in statehouses across the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A post-election analysis by the group showed at least 2,073 women holding 28 percent of the seats in state legislatures. —Anne K. Walters

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Harvest Prude

Harvest is a political reporter for WORLD's Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate. Harvest resides in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @HarvestPrude.

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  • JimVC
    Posted: Fri, 12/21/2018 09:15 pm

    The numbers given for national debt are annual deficit numbers. The actual national debt is over $20 trillion.

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Sat, 12/22/2018 12:47 pm

    Thank you for pointing out the error. It has been corrected.