Trump To Host A Prison Overhaul Summit

May 18, 2018
Originally published on May 18, 2018 11:27 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When you interview white evangelical voters, they'll often talk about abortion or religious freedom as issues they feel most passionate about. But President Trump's evangelical advisers at the moment are focused on something else, reforming the nation's prison system. They will be among those attending a prison reform summit at the White House today. NPR's Sarah McCammon has more on how criminal justice reform has evolved into a front-burner issue for this group.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: A couple of weeks ago, during a National Day of Prayer ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, President Trump called Jon Ponder to the stage.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Jon was in and out of jail for years until, at age 38, he was arrested for bank robbery. You don't look like a bank robber, Jon.

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MCCAMMON: Today, Ponder is CEO of the nonprofit HOPE For Prisoners which works with people who've been incarcerated. As Trump explained, he traveled a difficult path there.

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TRUMP: Jon soon ended up in federal prison, relegated to solitary confinement. That's where God found him.

MCCAMMON: That idea that God can find you even in prison is an important part of the Christian belief system, says Johnnie Moore. He's an evangelical leader and informal adviser to President Trump who's taking part in the White House summit today.

JOHNNIE MOORE: I'm not sure that for a number of years it was sort of considered a political issue. It was more just an issue of justice.

MCCAMMON: Moore says evangelical churches have long been involved in prison ministries, but as the incarceration rate has climbed, they've seen the impact both on people they serve and in their own congregations.

MOORE: We've seen it with our own eyes, you know? And now's the time to speak up.

MCCAMMON: One big factor that's brought more white evangelical congregations face to face with the prison system is the opioid epidemic, says Craig DeRoche with the evangelical group Prison Fellowship.

CRAIG DEROCHE: It stopped becoming an issue of the people that have criminal justice involvement as being those people, to, wait a second, I know these people.

MCCAMMON: For decades, the most prominent white evangelical voice calling for prison reform was the group's founder, the late Chuck Colson, a former Nixon administration official who served time after Watergate. Speaking via Skype, DeRoche says the evangelical movement has evolved on the issue since Colson's time.

DEROCHE: A lot of people in the church didn't feel called strongly to actually enter the debate over the ideas of this like they did with issues like abortion.

MCCAMMON: Prison Fellowship is backing the First Step Act which focuses on rehabilitation programs for people leaving prison. It's being promoted by Trump's adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who's been instrumental in marshaling evangelical support for the plan. But some other religious groups, like the National Council of Churches and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, say the bill doesn't go far enough. For example, it doesn't address sentencing. Like them, Jesselyn McCurdy of the American Civil Liberties Union opposes the measure. She worries about squandering what could be the only chance for a while to make meaningful changes.

JESSELYN MCCURDY: Our concern is, if we support this, we're leaving thousands and thousands of people behind in the name of a very quick, empty, promise-type of reform that won't result in many people actually coming home.

MCCAMMON: McCurdy says she welcomes evangelical support for prison reform, but not for this bill. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.