Scales of Justice (Photo credit: Michael Grimes)

Criminal justice reform forecast looks promising

By José Woss

Last year saw the most robust criminal justice reform effort in a generation. Congress nearly brought a far-reaching criminal justice reform package to the floor. These reforms would have addressed some of the most troubling aspects of our criminal justice system, including mandatory minimum sentences that have resulted in millions of individuals receiving lengthy — even life — sentences for nonviolent offenses.

Mass incarceration is a terrible reality in a country that proclaims freedom and justice as bedrock principles.

Mass incarceration is a terrible reality in a country that proclaims freedom and justice as bedrock principles. To change this reality, we must change the narrative, beginning with seeing those incarcerated as human beings deserving of dignity, or, as Quakers believe, people with that of God within them.

In the last Congress, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, R-Wis., were the strongest advocates of criminal justice reform. Others who championed this effort included senators Richard Durbin, D-Ill.; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; Mike Lee, R-Utah; and Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas. Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.; Ranking Member John Conyers, D-Mich.; and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, took up the cause.

The landscape for criminal justice is not without challenges. President Donald J. Trump campaigned on being a “law and order” president and said he would “restore confidence” in the people tasked with keeping us safe. His nominating Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general is deeply concerning. Sessions has been the intellectual voice of opposition to criminal justice reform. He has opposed changes to mandatory minimum sentences, except for disparities between sentences for crack and powder cocaine, which he helped reform.

Sessions is poised to drive policy at the Department of Justice. However, numerous states, such as Texas, Georgia and South Carolina, have passed comprehensive and successful criminal justice reform, and Vice President Mike Pence signed criminal justice reform into law as governor of his home state of Indiana.

In this Congress, we have already seen positive statements from congressional leaders. In January, Grassley said he would like to reintroduce his bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), and Ryan indicated in the first weekly address of the new Congress that criminal justice reform is a top priority. Texas’ reform efforts have seen the state’s prison population drop at the same time that its crime rates have fallen to levels unseen since 1967, furthering the hope that Cornyn will again champion SRCA.

These leaders understand the fiscal strain on budgets caused by mass incarceration and the moral imperative to act. Add to this fact the advocacy of people of faith inspired not by ideology or politics but by conviction and morals, and the outlook for criminal justice reform in this Congress is promising.

People of faith should reach out to their members of Congress and urge consideration of sentencing and prison reform to begin to turn the tide of mass incarceration.

In the gospel of Matthew, we read, “I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36). People of faith should reach out to their members of Congress and urge consideration of sentencing and prison reform to begin to turn the tide of mass incarceration.


José Woss is a legislative associate for domestic policy at Friends Committee on National Legislation and co-chairs the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, an alliance of more than 50 national faith groups advocating for a more just and humane justice system.

The views expressed are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.