Support the First Step Act

Pursuing Colson’s Dream

As you may have heard (and as John Stonestreet discussed on “BreakPoint This Week”), the President recently announced his support for a bipartisan criminal justice reform proposal known as the “First Step Act.” It would, among other things, curb the use of mandatory minimums in federal courts. It would not only eliminate the infamous crack versus powder cocaine disparity in sentencing, it would do so retroactively. Thus, people serving time because of the disparity could petition for release.

It would also force the Federal Bureau of Prisons to follow its own rules when it comes to matters such as being housed within 500 miles of the families and incentives for rehabilitation. It would even ensure that female prisoners get tampons, which, astonishingly, isn’t always the case.

It’s ironic that, as John Stonestreet has pointed out on several occasions, just about the only thing that Democrats and Republicans can agree on is the need to fix our criminal justice system.

Ironic, but not surprising, if you know the story behind the story.

Call me biased, since I worked for him for two decades, but this proposal represents a potential triumph for what might be called the “House of Colson.” It certainly wouldn’t exist without Chuck Colson and what God did through him and gave him a passion for.

As you know, Chuck served time in a Federal prison for a Watergate-related offense. As you also know, his time in prison led him to create Prison Fellowship, which ministers to offenders and their families.

What you may not know — although if you listened to Chuck with any frequency, it’s difficult to understand how you could have missed it — was that his experience convinced Chuck that our criminal justice systems were desperately in need of reform.

The more he thought and read about the issue, the more he became convinced that mass incarceration wasn’t the solution to crime. He came to appreciate that, for many offenders, there were better, more effective, and, yes, cheaper, ways to hold them accountable and protect public safety.

This conviction led him to make criminal justice reform one of his and Prison Fellowship’s principal mission. Since the 1980s many people, including me, have worked on the criminal justice reform side of Prison Fellowship.

One of them was my dear friend Pat Nolan.  Like Colson, Nolan, the former minority leader in the California Assembly, served time in prison. Like Chuck, the experience convinced him that there had to be a better way. It was, thus, foreordained that Nolan would come to work for Prison Fellowship as the leader of its criminal justice reform efforts.

It was while heading Prison Fellowship’s reform efforts that Nolan helped Jared Kushner and his family. Kushner’s father, Charles, was facing fourteen months in federal prison. The family contacted Nolan who, as reported by the Marshall Project, “gave the Kushners an insider account of prison conditions and programs and what they needed to do to make sure Charles Kushner received their material and emotional support.”

This included, among other things, “how Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, could keep his utensils kosher and whether he would be able to put together a minyan — a group of 10 Jewish men — to perform public prayers and religious rituals.”

There was obviously no way for Pat to know the potential impact of his act of kindness — he was just being Pat Nolan and doing the right thing.  But twelve years later, Jared Kushner, that 23-year-old whose father was going to prison would become the president’s son-in-law and trusted advisor, and, even more to the point, a person who knows the system’s shortcomings from bitter personal experience.

This gave Nolan, who has moved to the American Conservative Union, and other criminal justice reform advocates such as fellow “House of Colson” member Craig DeRoche of Prison Fellowship, a potential ally in the White House.

But they still had to come up with a proposal that could win bipartisan support, not to mention the president’s.  And they and other reform-minded individuals and organizations did just that.

But we are far from actual, as opposed to proposed reform. For starters, even though, according to Senator Lindsey Graham, the measure would get eighty votes in the Senate, it’s not at all clear that it will ever get a vote, at least not any time soon. There are reports that the Senate Majority Leader believes that there are more important things the Senate has to get done before the end of the lame duck session.

What’s more, under the Senate’s arcane rules, speeding up the process of passage requires unanimous consent and, mathematically-speaking, eighty is less than one hundred. All it takes is one to derail passage in 2018.

The only way reform becomes a priority is if we insist that it become one. DeRoche has called a vote against the bill “a vote against public safety, religious liberty, and our deeply held belief in redemption.”

All I can add to that is to urge you to visit Prison Fellowship’s website to learn how you can help speed things up.

Chuck did his part. Now it’s time for us to do ours.


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