The Senate should take a leap of faith on justice reform

To say that Americans lack faith in their government is a vast — even comical — understatement. Poll after poll shows that public trust in our political systems is at an all-time low. As a recent example, a poll conducted by NPR found that 71 percent of Americans say they have “not very much” or “no confidence” in Congress.

It’s a grim picture — but it need not stay that way. As it turns out, Congress — specifically the Senate — has a remarkable opportunity in the coming weeks to begin to restore faith in the American system. How? By voting for a bill that puts faith in restoration.

The bipartisan First Step Act is just what it says — a crucial first step to restoring our nation’s broken criminal justice system. Currently, 2.3 million are held in our nation’s correctional facilities — more people than live in the entire state of New Mexico — costing approximately $80 billion annually. For that outlay, families are divided, youthful potential squandered and millions of dollars wasted by our injudicious approach to justice.

The bill seeks to reject the retributive approach to the justice of the past and embrace a restorative path for the future. It prepares the incarcerated to re-enter society and break the cycle of recidivism. By incentivizing participation in programs, increasing the number of skills-building classes available to inmates and ensuring that the released have valid identification before departing, the bill eases the process of re-entry and gives them a chance to start their lives anew.

The bill also restores the dignity of the incarcerated by making changes to the prison system itself. No longer must incarcerated women pay for their menstrual products or endure being shackled while pregnant. No longer will families have to travel for days on end to see their incarcerated loved ones, as the bill limits how far incarcerated individuals can be placed from their homes. The bill directs that special services and programs go to those considered high- and medium-risk, as it is these individuals who are in the greatest need of help and healing.

The legislation has garnered massive support across all parties, branches, and sectors. In late May, Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., led a remarkable coalition to pass the First Step Act out of the House with a resounding majority of 360 to 59. The bill has found extremely strong support at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue as well. Jared Kushner has played a critical role in shepherding the bill forward; Vice President Mike Pence joined Kushner to speak out in favor of justice reform at a White House event in May.

And just over a week ago, President Trump hosted a group of inner-city African American pastors — including prominent figures like Dr. Alveda King, Pastor Darrell Scott, and Bishop Harry Jackson — at the White House. At his roundtable for faith leaders, the president expressed his hope that the First Step Act would pass and the pastors discussed the vital role faith plays in sustaining communities and supporting those impacted by incarceration.

Lastly, the bill not only enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, but it has broad popular support as well. A recent survey found that 70 percent approve the legislation. We like to think the reason for this widespread support is because the bill speaks to the best of who we are as Americans: a people that deeply believes in the power of the individual to conquer even the most painful setbacks and in the power of democracy to craft equitable, just laws.

And it certainly speaks to the best of the faith community. Christians base our worldview and our public policy positions on the bedrock belief that each of us is created in the image of God. Christian scriptures also teach that no person — no matter what they’ve done or where they’ve been — is beyond redemption. Further, we believe the nuclear family is the basic unit of our society and determines much about how we grow up to be contributing members of society. Simply put, stronger families make America stronger. The First Step gives individuals the chance to turn their lives around and change. And it gives hope to thousands of families across this country that they can reunite and re-forge the bonds that were broken.

So, we call on the Senate to pass the First Step Act. Criminal justice reform is one of the few things that both conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, people of faith and people of no creed at all, can agree on. Supporting the bill will make it clear that, partisan pettiness and divisive discourse notwithstanding, American democracy can still work.

It will be a leap of faith, both in our system of government and in the millions of incarcerated citizens seeking to start a new life. It certainly won’t fix all of the problems in our justice system or our current political climate. But in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Timothy Head is the executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Dean Nelson is chairman of the Douglass Leadership Institute and national outreach director of the Human Coalition.

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