Speeches

I'd like to start by thanking the National Association of Evangelicals for inviting me to speak.

It is heartening to see so many young Christians who are engaged with their faith as well as public controversies-and so early in the morning, too.

This conference is a unique opportunity for you to learn about the serious challenges facing our country, and how Christians can respond to them.

As Christians, we have access to a long and distinguished moral tradition that can help us think about issues of justice and injustice . . . And that includes criminal justice, which I want to talk to you about this morning.

I want to begin by addressing why you should care about this issue in the first place.

Criminal justice reform may seem like a distant topic that is of little relevance to your lives.

I don't know your circumstances. Maybe you're all hardened criminals who have been saved by grace. If so, praise God.

But I kind of doubt that you're hardened criminals. I imagine most of you came from stable homes in stable neighborhoods.

In fact, it's possible you don't know anyone who has interacted with the criminal justice system, aside from the occasional traffic violation.

You may never have visited anyone in prison, much less seen the inside of a prison cell.

Still, I want to argue that we Christians have a special kinship-a special sympathy-for those who are imprisoned.

If you open your Bible, on page after page you will find tales of unjust imprisonment.

In the very first book of the Bible we read about Joseph's unjust imprisonment in Egypt.

In the next book we read of Israel's flight from captivity under Pharaoh.

The Apostle Paul wrote entire books of the Bible in prison, imploring his fellow Christians to QUOTE "remember my bonds." (Colossians 4:18, KJV)

Theologian Henry Alford reminds us that Paul's hands were literally bound to a Roman soldier, so the chains of his captivity "moved over the paper" as he wrote the inspired words of Scripture.

And of course, our entire faith climaxes around the unjust arrest, trial, and state execution of a man from Nazareth who was spreading a powerful message.

Yes, Jesus, too, was a prisoner. He was the only death row inmate ever to conquer death.

I didn't intend for this talk to become a sermon, so let me just reiterate the main point: Perhaps more than anyone, Christians have reason to care about criminal justice.

Just as we are concerned for the poor and marginalized in our society, concern for prisoners is written into the DNA of our faith.

Today, the task for Christians-as for all Americans-is to reform a deeply broken criminal justice system.

Right now, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world.

We imprison our fellow citizens at a higher rate than even authoritarian states such as Russia and Cuba.

A brief history lesson will help explain how we got into this predicament.

The current criminal justice system was put in place during the massive crime wave that enveloped our country beginning in the 1960s.

Between 1960 and 1991, violent crime rates increased by a factor of four, and homicide rates almost doubled across the country.

Most of you weren't even born when this crime wave rolled through America's cities. By the time you were old enough to care about politics, the wave had long since crested and receded.

So you can only imagine the destructive effect that crime had on American communities during this period.

Crime shattered homes and families, with countless souls lost to murder, abuse, drugs, and gangs.

Poor and minority communities were affected most acutely by this rampage.

The simple goal of reformers during this period was to re-establish safety on the streets by empowering local communities to fight crime.

Their efforts produced a number of innovative policing reforms that helped to reclaim communities that had been paralyzed by crime.

Because of the brave actions of law enforcement-working hand-in-hand with local communities-the crime wave receded. Today crime rates are near record lows.

Which is a development worth cheering, for obvious reasons! Social harmony and order are the basis of faithful, free communities.

But unfortunately, it is not the whole story.

During the same period, politicians who wanted to be "tough on crime" gave prosecutors vast new powers to lock up criminals.

These powers included mandatory minimum sentences, which impose sometimes-excessive, uniform punishments on criminals without taking into account the specifics of the case.

Prosecutors started to threaten defendants with mandatory minimums so that the defendant would accept lower charges.

And they started to make more criminals felons. Twenty years ago three-eighths of arrests led to felony charges; today more than half do.

Instead of trying to divert less-dangerous offenders away from prison, increasingly our criminal justice system locks them up.

The end result of these aggressive tactics has been a staggering increase in the number of people who are incarcerated.

As criminologist and judge Stephanos Bibas has written, "American prison populations have boomed" since the mid 1970s, "multiplying sevenfold while the population has increased by only 50 percent."

And while the number of prisoners has declined within the last few years, prison admissions have actually risen.

This means that more Americans than ever are coming into contact with the prison system-and there is a good case to be made that many of them do not deserve to be there.

Mass incarceration comes at an enormous cost, and I'm not talking primarily about its effect on deficits.

The main cost of our broken prison system is a human cost. A spiritual cost. This cost is denominated in wasted lives and broken families.

The men and women who we incarcerate are not criminals by nature. They are not somehow predestined to a life of crime.

Research shows that three-quarters of inmates were gainfully employed in a legitimate job shortly before their arrest. More than half have young children to care for.

These men and women, in other words, are not lost causes. They can and should be valuable members of their communities.

But prison has a way of changing people, and not for the better.

While it would be nice to think that the correctional system helps inmates correct the course of their lives, in reality it does the opposite.

When a young man goes to prison, he is ripped away from the family, community, and religious figures who could encourage him to reform his ways.

He is taken away from legitimate work and stuck in a cell block where there is little to do but stare at the ceiling or join a gang.

And when he gets out, he may be branded as a "felon," a scarlet letter that will keep him from moving on with his life.

So even after this inmate has paid his debt to society, we make him pay and pay.

Instead of helping him rejoin his community, we dangle the most important duties of citizenship just beyond his reach.

This unending stream of punishments strikes me as unfair-even un-Christian.

And I am not the only one who has taken notice. In recent days, Christians of all types have woken up to the injustice of mass incarceration.

For instance, you may have heard of Chuck Colson, the born-again Christian who devoted his life to prison ministry after serving hard time himself.

More than anyone, Chuck Colson has made criminal justice reform a priority for Christians in the public square.

But it is not just Christians. The criminal justice reform movement is interfaith, bipartisan, and energized.

President Obama and other leading Democrats have spoken movingly of the need for reform.

Red states and blue states alike have enacted vital reforms of state-level prisons, where the vast majority of inmates are housed.

And while the many people in this movement do not agree on everything, we can unite around a few common-sense convictions.

For instance, we believe that the punishment should always fit the crime.

Draconian sentencing tricks like excessive mandatory-minimum sentences are contrary to basic fairness because they do not treat defendants as individuals, but rather as generic "types" of criminals.

We believe also that the goals of the criminal justice system should be three-fold: To protect society, to punish crime, and then to forgive the offender.

If we do not give offenders second chances at citizenship, we should not be surprised when they do not become good citizens.

But at our core, reformers believe that too many men and women are wasting the most productive years of their lives in prison.

Instead of viewing prison as the punishment of first resort, we should be trying to divert lower-level offenders away from prison.

This means we should think seriously about alternative forms of punishment that allow offenders to remain near their families and other role models who can help them change their lives.

Here in the Senate, myself and a number of my colleagues from both parties have worked to reform the federal prison system.

Right now we are working to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for a host of crimes, including the infamous "three strikes" law that mandates life imprisonment after a third drug conviction.

And just a few months ago, a handful of my Republican colleagues and I introduced the Mens Rea Reform Act of 2017, which would require federal prosecutors to establish criminal intent before imposing criminal penalties.

This would ensure that defendants aren't swept up in the criminal justice system without the requisite level of intent.

These are all steps in the right direction, but so much more work needs to be done.

Undoubtedly it will fall to the next generation of reformers to fight for fairness and justice in our nation's prisons. That's your generation.

In a prison system of one-and-a-half-million inmates, reform can seem like a daunting challenge.

But I think you are up for the task.

After all, Christians are natural reformers. Our walk with Christ began with a reform of epic proportions. A reform of the heart; God and sinner reconciled.

This reform of the heart explains how a man who hunted down Christians could become the Apostle Paul.

And it explains how a former slave trader named John Newton could write the most famous hymn of all time, "Amazing Grace."

If reform is possible for those sinners, it is possible for every offender in our prison system-and indeed, it is possible for the broken system itself.

But it will require action. And it will require Christians such as ourselves to speak up about injustice wherever it is found.

Thank you.