Christian Leaders Announce Unprecedented Initiative To Reform ‘Devastating’ US Criminal Justice System

Joshua Gill, Daily Caller News Foundation

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Joshua Gill Religion Reporter
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A coalition of Christian ministries unveiled a declaration Tuesday, calling on all Christians to combat what they call the U.S. incarceration crisis.

Leaders from 95 Christian organizations led by Prison Fellowship, a ministry devoted to outreach and rehabilitation for imprisoned criminals, pledged Tuesday to uphold the Justice Declaration, an initiative for churches across all denominations to take a stand for reforms .

The declaration specifically called for Christians to oppose mandatory minimums, advocate for alternatives to incarceration, and for churches and ministries to care of victims of crime and engage in educational and rehabilitative services for those members of their respective communities who are incarcerated or who are transitioning from prison back into normal life.

“The Justice Declaration is an effort for us as Christians to unify around our values,” said Craig DeRoche, senior vice president, advocacy and public policy for Prison Fellowship, in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation. Christians involved in the coalition can advocate for criminal justice reform more effectually under the unifying vision provided in the declaration, Craig added.

Prison Fellowship describes the current U.S. criminal justice system as “a misguided response to crime” that has resulted in a “crisis of over-criminalization.” Nearly 2.2 million people were incarcerated in the U.S. by the end of 2015, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Prison Fellowship said that number accounts for “a quarter of the the world’s prison population.” But it isn’t just the number of people incarcerated that has inspired the church to action — it is the manner and length of prison sentences as well.

“The time has come to fix our criminal justice system,” said Dr. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. “And the reason is, there’s too much injustice in America’s criminal justice system.”

“We know there’s a problem. There are too many people in prison, there are racial inequities, mental illness, children without parents, high costs, and more,” Anderson added.

Anderson and others at the unveiling of the Justice Declaration called for specific reforms and listed among them drug courts, mental health courts, alternatives to incarceration, proportional sentencing, and employment training. Members of the coalition present with Anderson collectively condemned mandatory minimums as an ineffectual policy that robs judges of the ability to actually make fair judgements in criminal cases.

The coalition’s focus is as much about reforming incarceration as it is about reforming laws that place restrictions on the lives of those who have served their sentences in full, according to James Ackerman, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship. Ackerman said the current criminal justice system restricts former convicts from finding jobs and becoming productive members of society despite having already paid their debt to society.

 “What we’re doing is we’re hurting ourselves,” Ackerman told TheDCNF. “We’re hurting our own communities. We’re growing government dependence. We’re contributing to the breakdown of the family in America through public policy and that, many times, those are public policies that conservatives actually advance.”

While conservatives have in the past advocated for heavier penalties for crime, the issue of criminal justice reform has bipartisan support today within Congress.

Still, the idea of pursuing harsher sentences and being “tough on crime,” remains popular with conservatives like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump. Sessions announced in May that the Trump administration would repeal an Obama era directive that instructed federal prosecutors to avoid pursuing harsh mandatory minimums except in cases of violent or drug related crime.  According to Sessions, pursuing harsh sentences for “the most serious, readily provable offense” is a core responsibility for prosecutors. Prosecutors may gain approval from the attorney general or assistant attorney general to vary from the mandatory minimums in certain cases.

Members of the coalition visited Capitol Hill during the afternoon to bring the Justice Declaration before Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and other members of Congress to ask for their support as well.

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