Faith-Based Advocacy for Prison Reform

January 16, 2019

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The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world: approximately 2.2 million adults were in prisons and jails at the end of 2016. The development of the American criminal justice system was heavily influenced by religion, and today many religious organizations are involved in prison reform. In 2015, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called on Congress to pass effective legislation to reform sentencing and criminal justice policies. Numerous religious organizations have been involved with prison reform, including: Christian groups like Catholic Charities and Quaker Alternatives to Violence Program, Jewish organizations including the Aleph Institute and Jewish Prisoner Services International, the Buddhist-created Prison Mindfulness Institute, and Muslim Chaplain Services of Virginia, which began the first prison-based Muslim chaplaincy program in the United States. The FIRST STEP Act, which provides for more in-prison programming, received overwhelming support in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year and was endorsed by more than 20 Christian, Jewish, and secular organizations. However, opponents of the bill countered that it did not address the mandatory sentencing laws that put people in prison in the first place, producing divided opinion among Senate Democrats and skepticism from black and Hispanic Christian leaders. Increasing privatization of the criminal justice system also raises questions about religious influence within prisons. In 2006 a federal judge found a Prison Fellowship program in Iowa to be unconstitutional in its use of taxpayer money since it offered evangelical Christian participants better housing, better food, and more activities, with no similar non-religious option available.

This week the Berkley Forum asks: How have religious organizations played important roles in prison reform? Does prison reform create opportunities for cooperation across religious and political divides, or merely reemphasize existing cleavages? What legal and constitutional issues emerge when faith-inspired groups manage prison-based programming? What reforms can religious groups pursue that will ameliorate concerns about racial disparities in sentencing raised by black and Hispanic church leaders?

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