Heather Rice-Minus: First Step Act Recognizes That Prisoners Are Made in God’s Image Too

Illustration courtesy of FirstStepAct.org

Prisons in America are usually out of sight and out of mind.

But this week, the hopes and dreams of some 180,000 men and women serving sentences in federal prisons are in the national spotlight. After years of delays, the U.S. Senate is preparing to vote on the First Step Act, a justice reform bill already passed by the House of Representatives in May. It’s the most significant federal criminal justice reform effort in a generation.

“They are praying for it,” said Alice Johnson, who served two decades for a nonviolent drug crime before President Trump commuted her sentence earlier this year. She captured America’s heart as she ran into the arms of her family on the day of her release from a federal prison in Alabama.

Many prisoners like Alice Johnson and their families pray for brighter futures, productive careers, freedom from addiction and reunification with their loved ones. Unfortunately, the federal Bureau of Prisons, the nation’s largest correctional system, offers them few opportunities to work toward those goals.

The current rules and treatment of prisoners in the federal justice system are an affront to the dignity of men and women made in the image of God. Reform is overdue.

The problems with our federal justice system extend from overcrowded prisons to a lack of rehabilitative programming and support for those re-entering society.

These problems are not new. What’s new is the unprecedented willpower exhibited by so many members of both parties in Congress in response to a diverse coalition of faith-based organizations, law enforcement, conservative groups and progressives.

Respecting the dignity of men and women made in the image of God means holding people accountable with sentences that are proportional to their crimes. Men and women should not be languishing in prison years longer than necessary.

Prisoners from Sacramento County await processing after arriving at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif., on Feb. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The First Step Act would begin to address sentencing inequities. The growing movement to re-evaluate sentence structures has already been proven to yield success in many states. After passing similar reforms, for instance, Texas experienced significant reductions in crime while avoiding the construction of prisons that would have cost taxpayers more than $2 billion.

The First Step Act would also help restore hope to families like Alice Johnson’s. One in 28 children (1 in 9 among African-Americans) have a parent in prison; they are some of the most at-risk boys and girls in the country. Families of federal prisoners are especially likely to be separated from their loved ones by hundreds of miles — some fathers convicted in Michigan do time in Florida. The First Step Act would allow prisoners to earn increased phone and visitation privileges and the right to request a transfer to a facility closer to their loved ones.

The great hope is, of course, that incarcerated people will use their sentences to pursue significant changes in their lives, make amends for their wrongdoing and earn back the public’s trust. It makes sense, then, for prisoners to have access to as many transformative resources as possible — spiritual, educational and vocational.

Yet right now, few such resources are available. By the Bureau of Prisons’ own estimate, the wait list for a basic literacy course is 16,000 names long. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the recidivism rate for federal prisoners is 49 percent — a failure rate of 1 in 2.

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Source: Religion News Service