Jacob Lupfer: 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)

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.

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Source: Religion News Service