On criminal justice issues at least, principles are trumping partisanship

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC).
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC). AP

At a recent Washington Post live forum on juvenile justice, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said he may not run for re-election in 2020 if Congress can’t rally together enough to pass common-sense reforms on issues like criminal justice. Tillis was joined at the event by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del) to raise a united front for smarter sentencing. His comments highlight the vital importance of the battle now being fought for the future of America’s criminal justice system.

Despite the political turbulence of the past year, criminal justice reform is proving to be too important to be squelched by partisan squabbling. No matter where you sit, it’s easy to agree that sentences should be proportionate to the crime, and lowering crime rates through prisoner rehabilitation is good for society.

There’s too much at stake to not improve the system that supervises 6.9 million Americans in prison, on probation or on parole – making ours the most populous prison system in the world. Every year, prisons release more than 600,000 people back into society. Without help, two-thirds of them will be rearrested within three years. One in 28 children in our country is affected by a parent’s incarceration, and neighborhoods are blighted by the reduced prospects of the 65 million Americans shouldered with a criminal record.

Every year, Prison Fellowship works inside prisons to help restore tens of thousands of prisoners and hundreds of thousands of families affected by crime and incarceration. Our founder, Charles Colson, was passionate not simply about reforming those inside our prisons, but also reforming the entire system to produce better outcomes. Over the organization’s 40-year history, we have worked to unite leaders on both sides of the aisle in calling for federal and state criminal justice reforms that transform those responsible for crime, validate victims, and create a safe, redemptive and just society. We have particularly worked to pass key legislation like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (2000), the Prison Rape Elimination Act (2000), the Second Chance Act (2008) and the Fair Sentencing Act (2010).

In May of this year, Prison Fellowship established the Faith & Justice Fellowship, a bipartisan group of leaders and legislators motivated by their various faith traditions and committed to prioritizing and advancing restorative values in criminal justice reforms. We are pleased that Tillis is a founding member, along with other North Carolina leaders including Sen. Richard Burr and Rep. Mark Walker. It’s not surprising that these congressional leaders have joined the group, given the success they have witnessed with criminal justice reform in their own home state.

In fact, when he was still North Carolina Speaker of the House, Tillis defied naysayers who warned him that criminal justice reform would tank his ability to run for statewide office. Nevertheless, he led the passage of the Justice Reinvestment Act, which has lowered North Carolina’s prison population by 8 percent, closed 10 prisons and saved the state $560 million in incarceration-related costs while maintaining public safety. He believed it was the right thing to do and good policy. “I’m not soft on crime. I’m smart on rehabilitation,” he explained.

But Tillis is finding that gaining yardage on the field of federal reform is a tedious process. Since last year, he and a cadre of like-minded policymakers from both sides of the aisle have been fighting to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which would reduce sentences for those with nonviolent drug offenses and provide incentives for prisoners who complete proven rehabilitation programs.

Despite its common-sense approach, the bill has been met with a few persistent opponents who have prevented its passage. Yet our criminal justice system needs to be based on values and supported by evidence—not scare tactics and political slogans like “three strikes and you’re out.”

Tillis urged those at last week’s event to have the political courage to enact good policy. “Ninety-five percent of the people who go into the prison system … come out,” he said, “(If we do not rehabilitate them) far more innocent people are going to be harmed. I’m not going to play that political game. The stakes are too high.”

For North Carolina – and for the rest of the country – the stakes are even higher. The safety of our communities, and the future of millions of Americans and their families, rides on legislators’ willingness to have courage and apply their values to our justice system.

Craig DeRoche is the senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest outreach to prisoners, former prisoners and their families.