Originally Published by: Politico
Written by: Lorraine Woellert
The Faith and Freedom Coalition will ask members to flood Mitch McConnell and other Republicans with calls backing the Senate legislation.
Religious leaders buoyed by a successful alliance with the Trump administration are readying a pressure campaign with a new target: Senate conservatives who are blocking criminal justice reform.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, backed by Republicans with evangelical ties such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, is blocking a Trump-approved plan to revamp the criminal justice system, the latest priority of religious groups after they focused much of their earlier efforts on stocking the courts with conservative judges.
McConnell so far has resisted efforts to bring to the floor the bipartisan bill that would reduce maximum penalties for repeat offenders and give judges more discretion in handing down prison sentences, knowing it has already created deep divisions within the GOP caucus.
But religious leaders — who have the weight of President Donald Trump behind them — are preparing to pressure McConnell and other senators, such as Cruz and David Perdue (R-Ga.), to change their minds.
Starting next week, the Faith and Freedom Coalition will ask its 2 million members to flood Congress with letters and phone calls, said coalition Chairman Ralph Reed. Religious groups hope they can put enough pressure on Republicans with large evangelical constituencies to get a rare piece of major bipartisan legislation passed in a bitterly divided Congress.
“They’ll be hearing from their constituents,” said Reed, who said he counts all three lawmakers as friends.
The criminal justice deal in the Senate has split lawmakers in unusual ways. Trump, surrounded by pastors and police officers, endorsed the First Step Act, which Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have taken lead roles in negotiating. Since then, more than 2,000 church pastors have signed a letter in support, an effort organized by Paula White, a spiritual adviser to the president.
But lawmakers such as Cruz and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), normally allies of the religious right, have remained outspoken opponents of criminal justice reform, and the effort also drew staunch opposition from Jeff Sessions, who served as Trump’s attorney general until earlier this month.
Reforming prisons and sentencing rules have generally taken a back seat to hot-button issues such as abortion for evangelicals. But religious leaders say the subject has been important to them since the 1970s, when Charles Colson, a former special counsel to President Richard Nixon imprisoned for crimes connected to Watergate, launched the Prison Fellowship after finding faith behind bars.
The fellowship, an outreach program built on the deeply held Christian belief in redemption, has grown into a global organization with an annual budget of nearly $38 million.
“This is a base issue for conservative Christian voters,” said Craig DeRoche, head of advocacy and public policy at the Prison Fellowship. “The entirety of the Christian faith is based on a second chance that we all get because of Jesus’ sacrifice.”
The cause gained traction with fiscal conservatives after the 2008 financial crisis, when Republicans began looking at ways to reduce government spending and seized on the idea of reducing prison populations. Texas, South Carolina, Michigan and other states reduced state prison populations with no adverse effects on public safety, according to a recent study from the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocacy group.
The issue gained prominence on the left, too. In 2015, former President Bill Clinton — whose policies led to the mass incarceration of drug offenders — called for a bipartisan fix to sentencing rules that swelled prison populations.
In 2016, every Republican presidential candidate but Trump had a criminal justice reform platform. Even Cruz endorsed giving judges more leeway to set sentences.
“The religious right has been advocating for prison reform for a while, from the second-chances, Christian-compassion perspective,” said Inimai Chettiar, a director at the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice. “Conservative leaders have played a very large part in this.”
The same evangelicals who voted Trump into office helped win his support for the First Step Act. Religious leaders have been meeting regularly with Vice President Mike Pence and worked closely with White House adviser Jared Kushner, who has made the criminal justice system one of his main issues.
But in the Senate, tensions remain high between Republicans. A disagreement between Sens. Cotton and Mike Lee (R-Utah), who supports the First Step Act, spilled into public view this week.
Faith leaders said they want to get the Senate’s attention before Tuesday’s party caucus lunches. They plan to send texts and emails to followers starting next week, urging them to send letters and make phone calls pushing their representatives to back the Senate deal. They also plan to ask for help from megachurch pastors in states represented by conservative senators who threaten to impede legislation.
“We don’t consider the First Step Act to be a compromise solution to everything that ails the criminal justice system,” Reed said. “It’s a critical step toward bringing the American criminal justice system closer in line with what we consider to be a biblical model of a more redemptive justice system.”
They’ll also reach out to sympathetic liberals, including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who want to see sweeping criminal justice reform and would like to see the First Step Act go further.
Some supporters of the current effort are worried that if it doesn’t pass in the lame-duck session of Congress before the end of the year, Democrats who take over the House in 2019 might try to add provisions to the bill that would threaten conservative support. But Reed and other religious leaders said they aren’t banking on the First Step Act to pass in the next few weeks and are planning to keep up the pressure into 2019.
Prison Fellowship also has been conducting focus groups and surveys of church leaders and churchgoers to gauge support for criminal justice reform, and they’ll remind conservative lawmakers that many in their base support change.
A June 2017 survey by the group found that practicing Christians and evangelicals were more likely than the general public to “strongly agree” that the goal of the justice system should be returning inmates to society.
“The faith community sees this as a long-term investment in a top issue,” DeRoche said. “This is not a one-off thing.”