Is prison reform criminal justice reform?

Is prison reform criminal justice reform?

Cherelle M. Dessus

In President Trump’s first State of the Union address, many priorities and goals were mentioned. Advocates for criminal justice reform were not left out of this conversation. Trump stated that his administration would focus on reforming prisons to ensure that returning citizens have access to second chances.

For several years, presidential administrations and Congress have mentioned the need for bipartisan criminal justice reform to end the cycle of over-incarceration. Many understand criminal justice reform to be a combination of reforms to how sentencing happens and to prison conditions. Separately, both reforms are good steps to move forward but will not address the epidemic of mass incarceration. Together, sentencing and prison reform would decrease prison populations, eliminate racial disparities, reduce recidivism and rehabilitate individuals who encounter the criminal justice system.

Some policymakers take a “tough on crime” stance to appeal to voters and advocate for safe environments, a stance that contributes to an unwillingness to address sentencing reform. But more than half of the people in prison are serving terms for nonviolent offenses. Sentencing reform focuses on reducing mandatory minimums while simultaneously giving judges the discretion to sentence based on individual cases and circumstances.

Many prison reform bills like the Corrections Act focuses on reducing recidivism by implementing programs, activities and jobs for those in prison that prioritizes education, reentry, and drug abuse treatment.

MCC East Coast distributes prisoner care kits at a detention center in Philadelphia through the ministry of MCC staff member and prison chaplain, Ron Muse. MCC encourages supporters to create kits, which contain essential hygiene supplies, socks and underwear, to help meet the basic human needs of inmates. Pictured inmate Edward receiving a prison care kit from Ron Muse.

Is prison reform actually criminal justice reform, if sentencing reform is not included? Not quite. Criminal justice reform calls for a comprehensive package of reforms that would address the different aspects of the criminal justice system. Moving forward with one without the other fails to address the root problem with our booming U.S. prisons.

On February 15, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act out of committee, a bipartisan bill that provides both necessary aspects of criminal justice reform: sentencing and prison reform. Now the House of Representatives must introduce a similar bill.

We must be careful when supporting policies that impact those who interact with the criminal justice system. Let us think of what justice looks like in our policies. Jesus advises us that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, we do for Him (Matthew 25:40). Let this verse speak to our desire to pursue justice. Learn more about the current state of our criminal justice system and how you can advocate for change.