Reform bill the ‘first step’ to restorative prison justice, advocates say

Credit: Thomas Hawk via Flickr cc by nc 2.0
Credit: Thomas Hawk via Flickr cc by nc 2.0

.- The U.S. House of Representatives has passed prison reform legislation that would integrate faith-based programs into federal prisons to help prisoners prepare to successfully reenter society.

The First Step Act was authored by Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), and has the goal of incentivizing prisoner participation in vocational and rehabilitative programs. Lawmakers approved the bipartisan legislation by a 360-59 vote on May 22.

“I'm thrilled to see such bipartisan support for the First Step Act,” said James Ackerman, president of Prison Fellowship, the largest prison ministry in the United States.

“We have a duty as a society,” continued Ackerman, “to implement a more restorative approach to criminal justice -- one where people become healthier and more productive citizens when they return to society after serving time in prison then when they went into prison.”

The First Step Act calls for the implementation of individualized risk assessment interviews in federal prisons to better address each inmate’s personal needs, Prison Fellowship Vice President Craig DeRoche explained to CNA.

“For one person it, it might be addiction, for another it might be anger management and other issues to work through while they are incarcerated so that when they leave they are transformed and better suited for employability and success," said DeRoche.

This has proven successful at the state level in places like Texas, where it has “reduced expense and it has transformed lives in restored families and healing communities,” according to DeRoche.

Prison Fellowship operates in 428 prisons throughout the country. Their staff have seen many prisoners lives transformed by their faith-based programming.

Tiheba Williams-Bain previously served time in a federal prison in Texas. She explained to CNA that the skill-building and faith-based programming that she participated in positively impacted her life.

“I took advantage of every opportunity that was accorded to me while I was in prison to help me get better,” said Williams-Bain.

“It helped me navigate through the system, as well as my own self-doubt and insecurities that I had about myself,” she continued.

 Williams-Bain added that rehabilitation requires more than programs available, saying “it comes from the mindset of the person that utilizes the programs.”

Prison Fellowship Senior Vice President of Policy and Advocacy Craig DeRoche said that it was only through Christ that he was able to recover from 29 years of addiction.

He said that is why he believes it is significant that the First Step Act “affirmatively states that faith-based programs will be welcomed into the prisons as a solution.”

“No person is beyond Christ's touch and healing grace and offer of redemption,” said DeRoche.

“It doesn't matter if it is a non-violent criminal or a low-level  or a violent criminal that has done horrible things, we've seen that Christ can make a person new again,” he continued.

The First Step Act will likely face opposition from both sides in the Senate, but it has President Donald Trump’s support.

At the White House Prison Reform Summit on May 18, President Trump said, “At the heart of our prison reform agenda is expanding prison work and the programs so that inmates can reenter society with the skills to get a job. We also want more mental health services so released inmates can cope with the challenges of life on the outside.”

The president continued, “Get a bill to my desk.  I will sign it.”

Tags: Catholic News, President Donald Trump, First Step Act, Prison Reform bill, Prison Fellowship