Last week, the White House announced that it would support a bipartisan overhaul of America’s criminal justice system, including reforms to prisoner’s rights and federal sentencing guidelines as well as bolstering programs meant to help former inmates transition back into daily life when their sentences are complete.
The package being considered rolls back or alters many of the so-called “tough on crime” policies enacted in recent decades, most notably under the Reagan and Clinton administrations. Those policies have been cited by many critics as having far-reaching and unintended consequences for some of the country’s most economically insecure and politically vulnerable populations. An upcoming guest on the Christian Civics Podcast contends that those consequences include mandating unequal sentencing for comparable crimes, promoting conditions that facilitate recidivism, and unnecessarily destabilizing the families of the incarcerated.
For many of us, the White House’s announcement of support, declared during the week immediately following the 2018 mid-term elections, came as a surprise. But it is actually the culmination of months—or even years—of news stories you may have missed. To understand the significance of the announcement and what it means for Christians who are engaged in the public square, a quick overview of some of the key players and major developments is necessary:
Chris Christie Prosecutes Charles Kushner
Jared Kushner’s father pleads guilty to tax evasion, retaliating against a federal witness and lying to the Federal Election Commission.
Jared Kushner Describes Changes after father’s sentencing
In an interview with a real estate news outlet, Jared Kushner described the way his father’s guilty plea a decade earlier changed his view of the law and sentencing:
“If you’re convicting murderers, it’s one thing. It’s often fairly clear. When you get into things like white-collar crime, there are often a lot of nuances. Seeing my father’s situation, I felt what happened was obviously unjust in terms of the way they pursued him.”
Candidate Trump’s Positioning Makes Reform Look Less Likely
Throughout the primaries and 2016 general election, candidate Trump framed himself as “the law and order candidate,” emphasizing his tough-on-crime approach that, historically, was at odds with sentencing reform or prison reform.
Chris Christie Loses Favor With Trump Transition Team
During the 2016 general election, Chris Christie was a vocal and visible supporter of then-candidate Trump. He was widely assumed to be a leading candidate for Trump’s running mate, and then attorney general. Media reporting in the wake of the election cited Jared Kushner as the primary obstacle to Christie being offered either of those roles.
May 18, 2018
Tom Cotton Opposes House Prison Reform Bill
Conservative groups leak that Sen. Cotton, a longtime conservative opponent of sentencing and prison reform, has been trying to shore up resistance to a bipartisan prison reform bill about to be taken up for a vote by the House of Representatives.
May 30, 2018
Kim Kardashian Meets with Donald Trump
In news that seemed surprising and even confounding at the time, Kim Kardashian West met with President Trump in the Oval Office this spring to discuss the sentencing of Ms. Alice Marie Johnson, who was “serving a life sentence for a first-time, non-violent drug offense.”
August 1, 2018
Black Clergy Meet With President Trump, Discuss Reform
At a high-profile meeting with President Trump, leaders from black churches throughout the country made the case for prison and sentencing reform, among other topics.
August 22, 2018
Senate Majority Whip Confirms No Movement on Criminal Justice Reform
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn confirms to Politico that the senate majority would not bring criminal justice reform to a vote before the mid-term elections, citing the topics divisiveness among his party’s voters.
August 23, 2018
Trump Announces Opposition to Reform Before Election
With the mid-term elections fast-approaching, President Trump announced that he would not support Jared Kushner’s efforts to coordinate lawmakers behind a criminal justice reform package ahead of the mid-term elections.
October 9, 2018
Attorney General Opposes Local Policing Reforms
Attorney General Jeff Sessions demonstrates his opposition to criminal justice reform in microcosm by mobilizing the Justice Department in opposition to local efforts at policing reform in Chicago, signaling an uphill battle for proponents of reform at the federal level.
October 11, 2018
Key Democrats Also Oppose reform—from the other direction
Opposition to bipartisan prison reform emerges from the left, as well. Democratic Senators Corey Booker and Kamala Harris, along with Senator Dick Durbin and Representatives John Lewis and Shelia Jackson Lee announced opposition to the FIRST START act for, among other things, “giving too much discretion to the Trump Administration” and for not also addressing sentencing reform.
November 7, 2018
Jeff Sessions Pushed Out As Attorney General
Following the 2018 mid-term elections, President Trump requested the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, another noted opponent of prison reform and sentencing reform. Sessions was a controversial figure to pro-Trump conservative evangelicals, anti-Trump conservative evangelicals, and progressive evangelicals.
Lawmakers and Activists Pounce
With the administration’s highest-profile and most influentially positioned opponent of criminal justice reform resigned, and the political considerations of the mid-term elections in the past, lawmakers in DC quickly took up the issue again. The result was an even more comprehensive bill than what was originally under consideration, including changes to sentencing reform desired by key Democrats.
A process Driven by personalities
Those of us familiar with the classic Schoolhouse Rock music video chronicling how a bill becomes a law might notice that the ballad of the FIRST STEP Act includes some verses that the video left out: Personal lobbying from the salacious stars of reality TV shows, party figureheads carefully weighing the political fallout of making needed changes so close to an election season, and the likelihood of marrying the daughter of a future president all go unaccounted for in every civics teacher’s favorite cartoon. But the truth is that the president’s stance on this bill visibly evolved week by week, depending on who was able to get in the room with him.
The fact that any of us are at least in part shaped by the people around us isn’t a new or controversial statement. It’s also not fundamentally at odds with the design of our government—there is, after all, a reason that the Constitution actually institutes the president’s cabinet as an official collection of close and trusted advisors. Most presidents balance their own ideas and ideals against the gravitational pull of the personalities they surround themselves with and the electoral realities of their party. What is unique about the current administration, though, is how weighted toward personality their policy process is. The success or failure of this initiative largely rested on whether or not its supporters could get in the room with the president—and how often they can be there.
An Unpredictable (and Sometimes Self-Defeating) Path
By all accounts, criminal justice reform was a personal priority for the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and an issue he had been slowly advancing from his position as a senior White House aide. A clear opportunity to push it forward didn’t arise until Jeff Sessions’ resignation as attorney general. However, one of the reasons Jeff Sessions was attorney general in the first place was because, in 2016, Mr. Kushner resisted the idea of naming Chris Christie to the post.
If the initiative had received support from the attorney general sooner, it is likely that it may have enjoyed the president’s support and advanced through Congress much earlier. This conflict between personal animosity and political priority is a difficult narrative to get your head around. There aren’t clear heroes and villains, and every step forward seemed to come paired with another step backward or to the side. It wasn’t always an inspirational drama, or even a cynical cautionary tale. At times, it played out more like a farce.
(Which makes sense. According to friends who have spent significant portions of their careers on Capitol Hill, the TV show that best captures their work experience is HBO’s political comedy of errors, Veep.)
Cynicism is Rarely an Option
Christians know that our lives are in God’s hands. He orders our steps, and our endgame belongs to him. But when it comes to the public square—and especially when it comes to national politics—it can be easy to forget that we don’t always create our own opportunities. Getting good laws passed requires more than just a good idea and brute force. It requires wisdom, discernment and preparation.
For many activists and lawmakers who care about criminal justice reform, there were times over the past year that the initiative seemed dead—or at least likely enough to be abandoned as to qualify as dead. But they watched and looked for opportunities to form the right relationships and make the right arguments as those opportunities arose. When Paul exhorted his readers to be ready at all times to give an account for the hope that is alive within us, he meant that we should always be ready to share the exciting news about Jesus’ resurrection and eventual return, because we never knew when God would bring people thirsty for that news into our lives. But the same principle was at work among members of the clergy over the past few months. They were ready not just to give an account for the hope that was alive in them, but to testify as to what that hope meant—how that promise of healing and restoration could be worked out in our public life.
Most of us rarely get the chance to sit in on White House meetings, or debate national policy on the speaker’s balcony in the Capitol. But we are all members of a neighborhood, a town, a county, a state. Our national politics might be unpredictable, but for healing, flourishing and good-functioning to take root in our country’s political life in a consistent way, we need to be consistently prepared, ready to testify to the good, true and beautiful. One predictable part of our local politics—the one thing our neighbors should know they can count on—is that the Jesus followers around them care about our communities, and are ready to work for their healing when the opportunity arises.