Prisoners from Sacramento County await processing after arriving at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif., on Feb. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

How evangelicals teamed up with the White House on prison reform

(RNS) — At a dinner last year with prominent evangelical Christians in the Blue Room of the White House, Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, invited their table mates to discuss the issues most important to them.

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and one of President Trump's informal evangelical advisers, remembered Kushner asking him, "What's in your heart? What are your priorities?"

At the top of the pastor's list was "bringing the nation together."

Johnnie Moore. Photo courtesy of The Kairos Company

"We could really do this, and we can do it way beyond the rhetoric. For example, let’s look at prison reform," Rodriguez said.

Johnnie Moore, founder of The Kairos Co., a strategy firm, who recently was appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, described it as an "incredibly enthusiastic conversation.”

“Sparks were flying all around the table, and then Jared had this idea,” Moore said. “He said — it was a brilliant idea, and this was the impetus, the beginning of things — ‘What if we got every church or synagogue to take responsibility for one prisoner re-entering society? You think that could work?’”

RELATED: People of faith should support prison reform legislation (COMMENTARY)

That dinner planted the seed of what would grow to become the proposed First Step Act, aimed at reducing the number of people who return to prison after serving time.

That bill overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this week with not only bipartisan support from lawmakers, but also the support of a number of prominent evangelical Christians and institutions. And while the bill's fate in the Senate is uncertain, the support it's gotten from both sides of the aisle is already being counted as a major success on an issue that evangelicals have long tried to put their stamp on.

Vice President Mike Pence delivers remarks during a dinner with religious leaders on May 3, 2017, in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington.  Photo by Shealah Craighead/White House

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

"There's never been greater interest in America in criminal justice reform,” Craig DeRoche, senior vice president for advocacy and public policy at the evangelical organization Prison Fellowship, told Religion News Service in March after the White House announced its priorities for prison reform.

“We have a lot of hope. This administration is genuinely interested in second chances.” 

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Prison reform has been a signal issue for evangelicals since Charles Colson, a former aide to President Nixon, found his evangelical Christian faith while serving seven months in Maxwell Prison in Alabama for Watergate-related crimes.

It was Colson, as White House special counsel, who had first framed Nixon's “political template of being tough on crime and long sentences,” DeRoche said. Colson's prison experiences produced a change of heart. "Within three years he was saying that model was in conflict with our values as Christians and as Americans and that it would lead to failure.”

RELATED: All the president’s clergymen: A close look at Trump’s ‘unprecedented’ ties with evangelicals

Prison Fellowship, which Colson founded in 1976, is now the country's largest, but hardly the only, Christian prison ministry.

The plight of prisoners has been a priority for churches large and small “almost as long as the church has existed,” Moore said.

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After Colson’s death in 2012, many evangelical Christians picked up the cause of criminal justice reform, Moore said. As the U.S. prison population has swelled, he added, the issue has touched many Christians personally.

Since Trump has taken office, Christian organizations have claimed "unprecedented" access to the White House. DeRoche has taken part in meetings with Trump's aides, including his son-in-law, Kushner, but also with Cabinet members and staffers from the departments of Justice, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Housing and Urban Development.

Craig DeRoche, of Prison Fellowship, speaks during a Congressional briefing on the Prison Rape Elimination Act on March 19, 2018. Photo courtesy of Prison Fellowship

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

It's not unusual for the White House to welcome that input from Prison Fellowship, however, according to DeRoche. The organization has worked with every administration since President Carter.

On a press call Wednesday morning (May 23) after the First Step Act passed the House, Prison Fellowship President and Chief Executive Officer James Ackerman recalled a meeting he and DeRoche attended a few weeks ago with Vice President Mike Pence.

As the three men spoke in Pence's office in the West Wing, the vice president mentioned Colson had been a mentor to him. Going to his desk, Pence picked up his Bible, which Ackerman noted was “marked up like none I've ever seen,” indicating to him that the vice president “clearly is a fervent studier of the Word of God.” He flipped to the back of the book, to some notes he had taken on a talk Colson had given in 2006 at a church in Indiana.

“He read us those notes, and I could hear Chuck’s voice in it,” Ackerman said.

The conversation about prison reform isn't just a religious conversation anymore as the justice system, from the White House down to local prosecutors, has begun to weigh the cost of mass incarceration. (For Kushner, whose father had spent time in federal prison for illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering, the issue has personal relevance.)

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, left, shakes hands with Craig DeRoche, of Prison Fellowship, during a 2017 meeting on Capitol Hill. Photo courtesy of Prison Fellowship

First Step, an acronym for Formerly Incarcerated Re-enter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person, focuses on recidivism, the number of people who finish their prison terms or are paroled, only to land back in confinement.

Among other things, First Step would encourage prisoners to join programs, such as faith-based classes and job-training programs, that have been shown to reduce recidivism. With “earned time credits” awarded for their participation, prisoners could be released early to halfway houses or home confinement. It also would assess which programs are most effective for individual prisoners.

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In the year since the dinner in the Blue Room, the initial enthusiasm had to weather seemingly endless meetings, attempts to act through executive orders in place of legislation and other delays — a previous iteration, the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, foundered in April over its lack of sentencing reform provisions. More than 20 Christian, Jewish and secular institutions had signed a letter of support for that bill, including Prison Fellowship, the Christian Community Development Association, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

After some revisions, the First Step Act was ushered through despite similar objections that it treats only "back end" causes of mass incarceration — recidivism — and not "front end" causes such as mandatory sentencing. Heather Rice-Minus, Prison Fellowship's vice president of government affairs, said there isn’t enough consensus among lawmakers now to get a bill including sentencing reform to the president’s desk.

The Rev. Aundreia Alexander. Photo courtesy of National Council of Churches

“We're still going to fight for that,” Rice-Minus said. “We consider the First Step Act just that — it’s a first step.”

Democrats in the Senate are reportedly still divided, saying the reforms aren't enough without also looking at sentencing. 

So are some Christians, especially those on the left.

"There’s so much in the bill that gives false hope to people," the Rev. Aundreia Alexander, associate general secretary for action and advocacy at the National Council of Churches, said during a press call earlier this month. 

RELATED: ‘Rethinking Incarceration’ author on justice, race and the fact Jesus was incarcerated

Rodriguez, the head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said he too is disappointed that the bill overlooks sentencing reform. The disparity in sentencing — that people who are African-American or Hispanic are more likely to be incarcerated than people who are white — is something he said nobody can deny, no matter what their politics. And Christians, he said, are compelled by the message of Jesus to speak against such injustice.

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez in 2013. Photo courtesy of NHCLC

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

When he mentioned the possibility to his multiethnic congregation, he said, "I had African-American men who started to weep and cry."

At the same time, Rodriguez said the First Step Act is a step in the right direction.

The evangelical Christians who have tied themselves to the White House are also glad to  show they can have influence on justice and equity, matters the public may not associate with the religious right.

“While much of the media obsession has been on evangelicals’ role in pro-life issues or religious freedom," Moore said, "I think we’ve actually made the most consequential difference in these areas of social concern, and we’re more involved in those conversations now than the other ones, honestly.”


  1. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be incarcerated than whites because they commit crimes at a higher rate than whites.

  2. Much needs to be fixed, and I am thankful people are taking a closer look at what can be done. I hope their idea works for people, but I hope they also realize that one response does not work for everyone. Many times those who are released have no other option but to go back to the same situation (people, places) that were not good for them the first time.

  3. CITATION NEEDED, please, by chapter and verse from you-know-where:

    (1) Did “Jesus … speak against … the [crazy] disparity in sentencing – that people who are African-American or Hispanic are more likely to be incarcerated than people who are white”?

    (2) Did “Jesus … speak against … the [crazy] number of people who finish their prison terms or are paroled, only to land back in confinement”?

    (3) Did “Jesus … speak against … the [crazy] cost of mass incarceration”?

  4. This sounds like another situation where Rev. Rodriguez finds himself having to apologize for the miniscule movements toward social justice that conservatives in government are actually willing to do. He has “access”, he is “asked” and then he finds himself obligated to brag on them for something they offer which is far less than even half a loaf. Just “lack of consensus”, they say. The NHCLC has no business trying to dance with these people. The interests of Hispanics are not addressed in conservatism.

  5. I have this sick feeling that this so-called reform is just another way to salve people’s consciences, while making ure that the prison industry stays healthy.
    Any real reform would address sentencing and arrest disparities. That this proposed act does not says much, and nothing positive.

  6. In other words, you have nothing of value to contribute…to anyone or anything.

  7. And this contributes what, exactly?

  8. I don’t believe the authors of this bill are concerned about freeing prisoners. This is most likely another faith based program to aid Evangelical goals. These programs for education and Christian conversion will help them spread their ideology to prisoners. A technique they have seen to be very successful for Islamist’s.

    I haven’t been able to discovered how they intend to implement this program but I would guess that Evangelical religious and educational private organizations will be selected. They would most likely be federally financed. Some may be “Non-Profit”.

    This will be one more program that consists of the state supporting a certain religion.


    According to Libby Fairhurst, “Faith-based prison programs claim to reduce recidivism, but there’s little evidence, says FSU [Florida State University] research”, Florida State University, October 4, 2006:

    “Charles Colson … has touted the success of his ministries based on studies that show lower recidivism rates among participants. However, [in ‘Faith-based efforts to improve prisoner reentry: Assessing the logic and evidence,’ that appears in Journal of Criminal Justice, August 2006, Dan] Mears noted that the studies focused only on inmates who completed the program, while comparing its recidivism rates to those of all participants—including dropouts—of selected secular programs. In fact, if recidivism rates in Colson’s programs were revised to include all participants, ‘graduates’ or not, results would be worse than those for the comparison groups. Where successes might be construed to exist, it’s unclear what to credit—the computer and life skills classes or its fundamentalist Christian doctrine. Where recidivism increases among its program participants, did faith-based programming play a part by leading some inmates to believe that ultimate responsibility for their actions lies with God, not them? Like arguments that faith-based programs decrease recidivism, this possibility remains to be demonstrated empirically. ‘Unquestionably, faith-based programs that rely exclusively on volunteers and require no in-kind contributions from correctional systems entail few costs,’ Mears said. ‘Yet, important questions remain about what exactly a faith-based program is, why such programs should be expected to be effective and whether they are, and not least, particularly where some degree of coercion is possible, the appropriateness of using any taxpayer dollars for religious programming.'”

  10. Without sentencing reform, prison reform may accomplish some good, but much less than we need. Much of the GOP, especially Jeff Sessions is going 180 degrees in the wrong direction in this regard.

    The most effective prison reform is putting only the people who really have earned incarceration in prison to start with.

    Start with ending the failed, expensive, and corrupting war on drugs.

  11. Florida has a 28 million deficit..and all the programs that were mentioned at the prison reform summit at the white house are being cut. Inmates that are at work release are being sent back to state prison..cuts include mental health, drug and alcohol, transitional housing, chaplain, librarian and many more programs cut..No oversight..Non violent offenders are housed with life sentence inmates..State of Florida Prison system needs a over haul..very sad time for familes that have loved ones in Florida Prisons.

  12. Otto — Common Sense is NOT allowed.
    You must stick with the Kosher Narrative = Whitey is Evil. Whitey oppresses other races. If it wasn’t for the White Man, the earth would live in peace and harmony.
    Get it straight man!

  13. Even worse I get the feeling its a backdoor plan to privatizing scams the White House loves so much.

    Given there is active efforts by the DOJ and ICE to attack due process rights of those in immigration detention, there is a good chance they have an equal disregard for the rights and lives of inmates in prisons as well. This is not an administration which values life except as $$

  14. So this is another bribe to the religious right in exchange for support.

  15. Whites are more likely to be domestic terrorists than all other ethnic/racial groups combined.

  16. Ah, yes! We arrest more Hispanic and Black people for crimes because they commit more crimes, and we know that because we arrest more of them, and we arrest more of them …… ad infinitum.

  17. And white, white-collar males are more likely to commit computer crimes…..

  18. The religious right, in an alliance with business. control this country. This is not really bribery, its mutual support. A slogan of the Christian Nationalists is C.C.C
    Christ, Culture, Capitalism

  19. At first glance this is a great idea and a good “first step”. But it didn’t take me long to see that not only would the gov’t have to pass this bill, but that the said churches and synagogues would have to IMPLEMENT it. As with most voluntary programs I expect a lot of “That’s a great idea – someone else should definitely do that”. Unless you incentivise groups to implement it, it will die on the vine. Meanwhile supporters will be patting themselves on the back for passing such wonderful legislation and proclaiming sanctifying this administration yet again.

  20. ugh. shades of separating dreamer families at the border.

    On one – albeit optimistic – hand, greater religious involvement in the rehabilitation of offenders will hopefully open their eyes up to the bureaucracy and biases of the current system and further promote change down the road. But I think that, again, those evangelicals that support Trump would on one hand call the opportunity to provide spiritual support a political and moral victory while on the other hand do nothing about it themselves. They are the party of law and order, and tend to view law violations as personal failures and poor choices rather than systemic issues.

  21. And how much crime in America is caused directly by gangs? That’s an odd figure to draw up. And see my above comment on crime data.

  22. In that table “whites” includes whites and Hispanics. Blacks are about 12% of the population, non-Hispanic whites are about 63% of the population. That table shows that in 2013 blacks perpetrated 52.2% of homicides, 31.3% of rapes, and were 28.3% of total arrests. The only crime on that table blacks don’t commit at a higher rate than whites is DUI, which is about even.

  23. I think you’re playing a bit of a game with the data. The question was “do blacks commit more crimes than whites” and that answer, even accounting for the number of reported crimes by Hispanics, is still going to be no. The data does not include population data in regards to how much a particular race makes up the general population, only crimes commited. Plus I think you need to look at not just violent crime. The OP’s point was a broad brush statement that doesn’t hold up to reality as presented in at least FBI data.

  24. I will agree with your note on homicides. Mea culpa.

  25. I’m not playing any “game”. We know racial demographics through the Census. While clearly the concept eludes you, most of us know what a rate is because we paid attention in grade school

  26. Ever hear of “White Flight”?
    You never hear of ‘black flight’ or ‘m.exican flight’.

  27. If you paid attention in grade school please tell me what the homicide rate by Hispanics is according to that 2016 data. If you’re going to tell me that you take the white homicide rate is and subtract the percent of the population that’s Hispanic that’s a false move. You’re assuming that just because Hispanics are a certain part of the population that the amont of crime they commit is proportional. And it’s not.

  28. Filtering the Hispanic data from the “White” category where possible from the data provided:

    All arrests: Non-Hispanic White = 51.2%, Black/AA = 26.9%, Hispanic = 18.4%
    Juvenile arrests: Non-Hispanic White = 39.3%, Black/AA = 34.7%, Hispanic = 22.8%
    Adult arrests: Non-Hispanic White = 52.2%, Black/AA = 26.2%, Hispanic = 18%

    I used subtraction.

  29. Well………….that is part of it. But you missed the point.
    White’s flee because of “instinct”. The instinct to Survive.

  30. It’s not always “survivial”, it’s convenience. I think white flight often happens simply because those “undesirables” are moving in. Housing prices decline, some crimes increase, someone puts in Section 8 housing, stores close, poverty increases. So they leave, and the spiral continues. Those that can leave will, but lower incomes can’t leave. That’s my point. Now we have gentrification, where slummy neighborhoods are being bought up and knocked down for high rent condos, which pushes those who live there out so the more wealthy can come in.

  31. Well…………I personally didn’t move from Atlanta to the Pacific Northwest because of “convenience”. I moved because I was sick and tired of living in fear.
    Not sure where you live. If ever in a city like Atlanta, just watch the news for a few days. You’ll soon wake up to reality. If you aren’t a race realist now……… will be. I was a White liberal SJW before moving to Atlanta.

  32. This is the very thing I point out to my friends who are GOP here in my bible belt state. Gov. Bevin touts his religious bona fides yet drags his feet on pushing programs to successfully reintroduce inmates into society.

  33. My sister lived in Atlanta for years and never complained about crime. They lived in the outer burbs though. I know that it can be bad depending on what area you live in, and Atlanta is a huge city. I live in Pittsburgh where we have our share of crime, but I grew up in a small mostly white blue-collar town north of Pgh that is currently ravaged by unemployment, meth and opioids. I’d rather live in Pittsburgh than there.

  34. My sister lived in Atlanta for years and never complained about crime.
    I too ignored it for several years. Until it lands in your lap. Let us both be thankful your sister, nor my self or my family had to “wake up” the hard way.

  35. Evangelical gang members terrorizing Gay people in the name of the Lord… They’re already doing that in Brazil. Why start that here?

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