Obama Admin Jumps on Board the Prison Reform Train

Prison reform has been gaining steam in state governments and Congress with the support of Christian groups, conservatives, libertarians and liberals. The Obama administration has now decided it will not be left behind. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday an initiative to reduce sentencing for some non-violent drug offenders. In responses to The Christian Post, Prison Fellowship and the National Association of Evangelicals praised Holder's remarks.

The Justice Department will be modifying its policies so that "certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences," Holder said in a speech at an American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco.

"They now will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins," he continued. "By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation – while making our expenditures smarter and more productive."

Prison Fellowship, an evangelical ministry to prisoners founded by the late Chuck Colson, has long worked for fairer sentencing laws. Craig DeRoche, president of Justice Fellowship, a division of Prison Fellowship, praised Holder's remarks, but also urged the administration and Congress to work together on passage of a fair-sentencing bill.

The announcement "is welcomed by conservatives and Christians alike," he said. After noting that President Barack Obama and his predecessor, President George W. Bush, both admitted to breaking drug and alcohol laws in the past, DeRoche added that the nation should "move away from using incarceration as the default punishment for all crimes and be more prudent in the pursuit of justice.

"We welcome the Attorney General's support for returning prosecutorial power to the states, where criminals can be held accountable more effectively. We urge Congress, which has already demonstrated leadership in embracing these principles, to work with the Administration to codify them into law."

On August 1, DeRoche was one of 18 Christian leaders who signed a letter voicing support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, which has been introduced by Sen.'s Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah). The SSA would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and provide judges with greater discretion in sentencing.

Galen Carey, vice president for government relations at the National Association of Evangelicals, also signed the letter. Like DeRoche, he voiced support for both the Justice Department's new initiative and the current efforts in Congress. NAE has long fought for sentencing reform, Carey noted, "that would establish both victim restitution and offender rehabilitation as central goals of the criminal justice system."

Evangelical pastors, he noted, have much first-hand knowledge of problems associated with the prison population because they visit prisons as part of their ministry. When NAE polled their member pastors on the question, 95 percent said they had visited a prison.

"Punishment should fit the crime and serve the common good," Carey added. "Overuse of incarceration does neither."

Right on Crime, a conservative advocacy group for prison reform supported by many leading conservatives, such as Newt Gingrich and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, also praised Holder's remarks.

"It's good to see the Administration following the lead of conservative states such as Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia that have proven it's possible to reduce crime while also reducing criminal justice spending," said Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation on behalf of Right on Crime.

Levin pointed, in particular, to the importance of Holder's plan to give more sentencing control to local and state officials.

"One size does not fit all crimes and a mandate from the federal government is not applicable to every case or situation. As conservatives who believe in limited government, we know that the federal government has too often overreached on criminal justice and that most criminal activity is best handled at the state and local level," he said.

Writing for Reason, a libertarian publication, Matt Welch also noted that the administration is "playing catch-up on prison reform behind more conservative groups and states." He added that Holder's speech "has the makings of a key moment in beginning to undo the disastrous war on drugs."

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