Prison reform bill draws ERLC support

WASHINGTON (BP) -- The Southern Baptist Convention's lead ethicist has joined a coalition that includes leaders of conservative and criminal justice organizations in urging passage of federal legislation designed to reduce the prison population and heighten public safety.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), signed onto a June 2 letter with 18 others to urge a U.S. Senate committee to act on the Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System (CORRECTIONS) Act. The letter endorsers called for the Senate Judiciary Committee to forward the bill, S. 467, to the full chamber.

In the letter, the signers said they believe the bill "presents an opportunity to empower federal corrections officials and prisoners to redefine time spent in prison from a period of incapacitation to a crossroads of transformation." It will help prepare prisoners "to rejoin society as law-abiding and contributing members of society," they said.

The legislation calls for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to expand programs to reduce recidivism, which is the relapse into criminal activity by ex-prisoners that results in rearrest, reconviction or reimprisonment typically within three years after their release. The measure directs the DOJ to partner with faith-based and other non-profit organizations in the conduct of such programs as drug rehabilitation, skills training and faith-based classes, according to the letter.

The CORRECTIONS Act "is a solid piece of legislation," the ERLC's Barrett Duke told Baptist Press in written comments. 

"Regrettably, too often prison becomes a place of hardening rather than rehabilitation," said Duke, the ERLC's vice president for public policy and research. "The men and women in our corrections systems are also created in God's image, with great potential. We should not treat them as though they are disposable because they made some bad choices.

"Our country should be committed to help as many of them as possible get their lives on a path toward flourishing. Everyone benefits when someone's life is turned around. May many thousands leave prison for the last time because of the assistance provided by this bill."

The legislation seeks to address the skyrocketing population and cost increases in the federal prison system during the last 35 years. The number of federal inmates has grown from 25,000 in 1980 to more than 209,000, which is 128 percent of prison capacity, according to the letter. The Bureau of Prisons budget is about $6.9 billion or about one-fourth of the DOJ's total budget.

Recidivism is a major problem. A 2005 study of more than 400,000 prisoners after their release found 68 percent were rearrested within three years, according to the DOJ's Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of those, 57 percent were arrested in the first year after release.

A Republican -- Sen. John Cornyn of Texas -- is the measure's sponsor, but it has bipartisan support. Five of its nine co-sponsors are Democrats.

In addition to Moore, other signers of the letter included Craig DeRoche, executive director of Justice Fellowship, which advocates for reform of the justice system as part of Prison Fellowship Ministries; Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council; Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform; Gary Bauer, president of American Values; Galen Carey, vice president for government relations of the National Association of Evangelicals; Dean Nelson, chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation; and New Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives.

Among its provisions, the bill:

-- Requires review of prison programs and activities intended to reduce recidivism and a survey to find products made overseas that could be manufactured by prisoners without decreasing work opportunities for other Americans.

-- Mandates the use of risk and needs assessment tools to select the most effective programs for eligible prisoners while excluding inmates who are security threats.

-- Calls for incentives, such as increased visitation privileges, for prisoners who complete programs and, if they reach a certain classification, time credits for such prerelease custody as that in a re-entry center or home confinement.

-- Makes permanent a pilot program under the Second Chance Act to release nonviolent elderly inmates from prisons and place them in home detention.

Of the cost savings produced by enforcement of the legislation, 90 percent will be reinvested in such areas as federal prison programs and law enforcement aid, according to the letter.

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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