April 28, 2016

Criminal Justice Reform – One Step at a Time

By Ford Rowan

The Maryland General Assembly has voted to approve a sweeping criminal justice reform bill, the Justice Reinvestment Act. It will result in thousands of non-violent offenders being released; most of these inmates are low-level drug offenders.

A large number of religious groups – including our Disciples Center for Public Witness – have urged passage of this legislation. Reform is long overdue. Maryland’s draconian mandatory sentences for drug offenses have swelled the prison population and contributed to the mass incarceration of African-Americans.

The new law will result in millions of dollars of savings in correctional costs. These moneys are earmarked to pay for the kind of services that will help keep ex-offenders from re-offending: addiction recovery programs, mental health care, transitional housing, job training and employment assistance.

As someone who has volunteered with the ecumenical Kairos Prison Ministry, I can testify to the importance of such programs. While the Kairos ministry doesn’t engage in advocacy work, many of my volunteer brothers and sisters in Christ have worked to change a broken prison system. As I testified before three different Maryland committees: Re-entry programs prevent recidivism. Returning citizens need help.

One of the leading reformers is former Maryland Senator Chris Shank, a Disciple who has volunteered with Prison Fellowship. Chris was appointed by the governor to head the Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council. He was the shepherd for the bill, working tireless in the last hours of the legislative session to win agreement between members of both parties on details of the final bill. God blessed us with Chris’s successful work.

Now the attention is on the United States Congress where criminal justice reform has gained some bipartisan support. Many religious groups are working to win support but in an election year it may prove to be difficult to gain final passage. Your prayers are appreciated. And you can urge your Representative and Senators to vote for reform. It’s a one-step-at-a-time process.

Jesus told us to visit and care for the prisoners (in Matthew 25). The need is great and there’s a lot left to do. If you would like to volunteer for ministry and/or advocacy work please do not hesitate to contact me at May God bless you all.

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