The largest global Christian prison ministry is applauding reports that U.S. President Donald Trump has signaled a willingness to include sentencing reform measures in a pending prison bill.
“We’re very pleased,” said Craig DeRoche, senior vice president for advocacy and public policy at the nonprofit ministry Prison Fellowship.
“There’s widespread consensus that these [sentencing reform proposals] are changes that bring the system more in line with what law enforcement even and the courts would consider proportionate punishment for what people have done,” he told CNA.
Last week, The Hill reported that Trump had voiced support during a meeting of Republican senators for a compromise proposal that would introduce several sentencing reform provisions into the First Step Act. The provisions include a reduction in mandatory-minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) later told reporters, “There seems to be an interest on the part of the White House now to keeping the bills together.”
The First Step Act is a bipartisan bill that deals with prison operations and reentry policies. It would offer incentives for inmates to go through counseling, substance abuse programs, and vocational training before reentering society.
While the bill passed easily in the House of Representatives, it has faced opposition in the Senate, with some critics saying they will reject a bill that fails to include sentencing reform.
“The First Step Act as a standalone bill is a very important piece of legislation, because it provides important reforms for people who have already been sentenced,” DeRoche said. “We believe it will make communities safer and will set people up for success rather than failure when they complete their prison sentence.”
However, sentencing reform is also important in working toward just prison sentences, he said.
“The sentencing code, just like the tax code, can be very complex,” DeRoche explained, and this can lead to situations that in practice are not what was intended by the authors of the code.
As an example, he pointed to stacking provisions, in which the letter of the law requires an individual’s sentences to be stacked on top of one another. This can lead, he said, to sentences longer than even prosecutors or judges believe to be just.
The sentencing reforms reportedly being considered would free judges from this requirement for drug offenders. They would also retroactively reduce the disparity between cocaine- and crack-related offenses, and would expand exemptions to mandatory minimum sentences.
In addition, The Hill reports, “The proposed compromise would lower lifetime mandatory minimum sentences for people with prior nonviolent drug felony convictions to 25 years and reduce 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for similar offenders to 15 years.” This reform would apply going forward, not retroactively.
According to the Congressional Research Office, there has been an 800 percent increase in the number of federal prisoners from 1980 to 2015.
“There’s a very large amount of work that’s yet to be done,” DeRoche said. “But what is being considered by the president is substantial, and it would have an immediate effect in making our country’s laws more in line with our values as Christians.”
“Our hope is that the details of that deal can be reconciled quickly,” he added, “so this can be voted on and be placed into law before the election.”