Opinion

Two cheers for the First Step Act

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., right, joins Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, center, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, left, in an Instagram Live post before they participate in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Dec. 19, 2018, on prison reform legislation. A criminal justice bill passed in the Senate gives judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders and boosts prisoner rehabilitation efforts. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (RNS) — To great acclaim from a diverse array of religious groups, civil society organizations and political leaders, the U.S. Senate voted 87-12 to advance a criminal reform bill Tuesday night (Dec. 18).

The House of Representatives has already passed its version of the First Step Act (the bill’s full title is Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act). Once the two are reconciled, the measure will head to the Oval Office, where President Trump is eager to sign it into law.

This high-profile moment of bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill comes with a warning, however, for each of the faith constituencies that helped to pass it. It also gives us a clue to how faith groups can work with the administration and each other.

News accounts have called this reform a “win” for conservative evangelicals. Against the tide of “tough-on-crime” politicians, evangelical elites have joined with other prison-reform advocates to help craft fairer and more compassionate policies on prisons and sentencing.

Eventually, rank-and-file evangelicals will support these reforms too. A June 2017 survey showed that evangelicals and other practicing Christians were likelier than the general public to agree that the goal of the criminal justice system should be to return offenders to society.

But that’s not the whole story. Trump-loving and Trump-skeptical evangelicals were joined by a broad coalition of religious groups, Protestant leaders as well as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

President Trump speaks in favor of H.R. 5682, known as the First Step Act, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 14, 2018. The measure would reform America’s prison system. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

If evangelicals are tempted to bask in the glory of another win under Trump, they risk overselling the impact and significance of the bill. Professional advocates such as the evangelical Prison Fellowship have done a good job of reminding conservatives that this legislation is, as its name implies, only a first step.

To make continued progress in the next Congress, these Republican-aligned groups will need to be just as willing to work with liberal Democrats as they have been to work with their own tribe.


RELATED: First Step Act recognizes that prisoners, too, are made in God’s image


It is important to understand why some faith groups on the left opposed the bill. Progressive Christians have a broader prophetic vision that demands that prison reform begin to right the wrongs created by a racist society. The Rev. Traci Blackmon, a prominent Congregationalist minister from Ferguson, Mo., told The Atlantic that First Step “is coming without any analysis, any confession, any acknowledgment of how we got where we are right now.”

The National Council of Churches, which in recent years has focused intently on sentencing reform, finds the legislation “sorely lacking” for providing “token sentencing reform measures” while doing “little to address the gigantic problems associated with the mass incarceration crisis.”

These progressive holdouts, whom I do trust have the more expansive and biblical view of justice in mind, preferred to take nothing rather than something.

This is a mistake. I hardly blame them for doubting that the Trump administration, or conservative evangelicals for that matter, will soon share their zeal for ending the prison-industrial complex and the carceral state.

Illustration courtesy of FirstStepAct.org

Progressives need to recognize that the president is an undeniable political force, one that towers over this reform effort and any other process they envision. They also need to recognize that his enthusiasm for this reform is a welcome signal that he is open to ideas that do not come steeped in white-grievance politics.

Trump is a complex and extremely problematic president, but he does have an instinct for compassion. If faith advocates can appeal to it, cultivate it and work strategically without concern about who gets the credit, maybe we will see more compassionate policies emerge before this administration is over.

This is no small ask, considering the breadth of distaste for the man himself. Advocates across the spectrum had to think twice about aligning with Trump to make this happen. But it is refreshing, especially in the midst of rampant congressional-executive dysfunction, that the process worked: Advocates brought their values to bear, crafted a better policy, built a bipartisan consensus and achieved a meaningful reform.

The administration’s cruelty is a constant source of disappointment, national shame and alarm. But in this holiday season, Trump is poised to sign a bill that will make it possible for more Americans to spend future holidays at home with their families. It also gives hope for a future for our polity.

About the author

Jacob Lupfer

A contributing editor at RNS, Jacob Lupfer is a writer and consultant in Baltimore. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.

25 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Wait. If the real god is Jewish would he bless Trump? If he is the Christian god would he bless a Jew, Jared? What if Allah is god? No blessings for either?

  • This is such a good bipartisan bill, that God will impart blessings upon all mankind; even upon Spuddie. 🙂

  • He would veto it if it weren’t for the following:
    1. Private prison companies are benefiting big time and are big supporters of Trump.
    2. There is enough support to override a veto if he tried it.

    This is a guy who thinks he can threaten a government shutdown when in fact he would have the most to lose from one. As of now signing it looks like he has caved on his own threats.

  • How come Obama didn’t do this? Because he hates people who aren’t multi-millionaires like him and Michelle?

  • Actually The Obama Administration had a host of reforms going on with this subject. Mostly dealing with a hostile Republican controlled Congress which was unwilling to do its job (See Merrick Garland).
    “Four Ways the Obama Administration Has Advanced Criminal Justice Reform”
    https://www.brennancenter.org/blog/four-ways-obama-administration-has-advanced-criminal-justice-reform

    This move right now is a minor sop to the real problem. At this point Republicans in Congress may be looking to distance themselves from Trump.

    His criminal behavior is becoming far more personal and prosecutors are getting far more willing to pursue the matter.
    https://lawandcrime.com/high-profile/former-prosecutor-investigation-into-trump-foundation-going-to-become-a-criminal-matter/

  • “Progressive Christians have a broader prophetic vision that demands that prison reform begin to right the wrongs created by a racist society.”

    So much for “bipartisanship.”

  • Because all mentions of racism are somehow fake? It doesn’t really exist? Nope.

    You were being more honest before. Essentially admitting that racism is inherent to conservatives.

  • Did I say “all”? No.

    Did I imply “all”? No.

    So, how did you get “all”?

    You made it up and injected it where it wasn’t – a perfect example of ‘faked partisanship”… and for that matter, of Progressive rhetoric in general.

  • I have yet to see you address racism in an honest fashion. Preferring to pretend it is just an empty label being used by the opposition. Showing annoyance at the label but doing squat to show why it is somehow inappropriate.

    Your weasel wording response here is just backtracking. You made it clear racism is a partisan issue. One side addresses it, you avoid deny and support it

  • I have yet to see you address my posts in an honest fashion. Nowhere have I suggested racism is not a problem. What I did suggest is that “racism” has become a politicized term that is often invoked to tarnish a political action (or actor), when no actual subjective racist attitudes are involved. You seem to have real problems with nuance. I guess it’s easy to win all your arguments in your own mind when you get to define your opponents’ positions (in your own mind) – easy to conduct a “winning” argument, that is, but hard to conduct an honorable one.

  • 🙂

    You called a reference to racism “an end to bipartisanship”. Implied is that conservatives don’t want to address such issues or are on the opposite side of those who do.

  • I called A reference to racism (the reference by “progressive Christians”) “the end of bipartisanship” — not ALL references. You made an inference that wasn’t implied (you do that a lot).
    We’re back to “where did you get ‘all'”? — a question I asked, but you never answered.
    The answer (as I already said), is that you injected it where it wasn’t.
    It’s impossible to carry on a rational discussion with someone who consistently misrepresents your position — especially when they routinely shift the argument onto theological grounds by calling your motives “evil.”

  • The “obvious meaning” of my statement is that Progressive Christians have turned the hatred of “racism” into a political weapon to tarnish conservative thinking in general. Your insistent attempts to parlay that observation into some unqualified endorsement of racism is so over the top it penetrates the ionosphere. Anyone who raises a caution, or whispers a criticism, about how the concept of racism is being used, must be a racist himself. That tortured logic is a spectacular rhetorical “fail” – and it’s all too typical of Progressive talking points – yet all you can do is to double down on the accusation. You certainly can’t be bothered to coin a rejoinder to ANY of my direct challenges or questions.
    That’s a double fail – want to go for three?

  • LOL! You are funny when you are triggered.

    No, its Conservatives who have turned racism into a political platform. Going out of their way in various policies to attack various communities of people of color, demonizing them, playing to fears of racists, attacking basic civil liberties and most of all pretending such animus doesn’t exist or is not significant

    “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.”

    -You can look up who the quote is from.

  • You do a lot of “laughing” for one with such a bitter attitude. Must be laughing on the inside – what comes across “out loud” is your seething prejudice against conservatives and Christians in general. BTW, I’m not interested in who the quote is from, because it’s irrelevant – the only thing I’ve “stuck a knife in” is your bubble of a fantasy about the sinfulness of your opposition. POP!
    Oh – and you STILL haven’t answered (or even tried to answer) ANY of my challenges or questions. So much for “dialogue.” The only thing you want to do is ventilate your rants. Have at it – you’re the main audience for them anyway.

  • 🙂
    You typed a lot to say very little. You said something obviously racist and have been giving post after post playing silly denial games. You do nothing but pretend every accusation of racism is phony, but its silly. Frankly you do zilch to show why it is ever inappropriate or incorrect. Only show how annoyed you are over it. A waste of time and effort.

  • “Obviously racist”? In your fevered imagination, perhaps. But since you regard any dissent from the Progressive agenda to be bigotry-motivated, that assessment is neither surprising, nor even particularly noteworthy.

    The point I was making probably strikes you as “very little” because you’ve heard it so many times…but I keep repeating it, because you keep not getting it. Here it is again, straight up: “I win because I’m a good person, and you’re a bad one” is not a valid argument. In fact, it’s not even an “argument” at all, it’s an END to argument, since the only possible responses to such a charge are either confession or denial. If your only objective is in fact to end the argument, that will do it, alright – and it will also enable you to pose (in front of your mirror) as a “victor” in the contest. But if your objective is to actually compose a convincing argument, it’s another “fail” – a bad one – and that does make three in a row.

  • Your smiley face is missing its nose (Did it get out of joint?). Without it, it just looks like a pig’s snout.

ADVERTISEMENTs