The Vital Role of Faith-based Organizations in Criminal Justice Reform [Part 1 of 2]

These articles are meant to strengthen the capacity of all faith-based organizations to live out their faith-based missions. If you are already a Sacred Sector participant, log into the Participant Portal to access the toolbox resources. If your organization is interested in becoming a Sacred Sector participant, click here.

  Jeremiah Mosteller, Advocacy Operations Manager at Prison Fellowship. 

Jeremiah Mosteller, Advocacy Operations Manager at Prison Fellowship. 

Most people can agree that our criminal justice system is flawed. There has been a 500% increase in prisoner populations over the last 40 years, with 2.2 million individuals in the United States living behind bars today. Severe racial and socioeconomic inequalities also pervade the criminal justice system; though people of color constitute 35% of the U.S. population, they make up 67% of the prison population. It is clear something needs to change. But what?

Proposed criminal justice reforms include solutions on both the individual and government level. Yet few solutions consider the contributions of other societal actors — including churches, families and nonprofit organizations. The Center for Public Justice approaches challenging issues such as criminal justice reform by using a public justice framework. This framework rejects the false dichotomy between government initiatives on the one hand and individual agency on the other. Instead, a public justice approach acknowledges how government can partner with organizations, churches, families, individuals and other institutions to accomplish its goals.

According to FrameWorks Institute, existing criminal justice narratives present serious roadblocks when it comes to creating solutions. Common perceptions of the criminal justice system tend to be fatalistic and narrow, focusing on the uselessness of government or the ineffectiveness of local public safety officers. Such narrow perceptions lead to narrow solutions. Instead, the public must learn to view criminal justice with a broader lens in order to develop solutions which address systemic factors.

In order to develop collaborative, comprehensive solutions to criminal justice issues, the public perception of the criminal justice system must be reframed to include institutions such as nonprofit organizations. Simultaneously, for nonprofit organizations to become part of the solution, they must demonstrate how their work is crucial to creating lasting and effective solutions in the criminal justice system.

Prison Fellowship is a Sacred Sector participant and faith-based organization that effectively exhibits the vital role of faith-based organizations in creating transformational criminal justice reforms. For over four decades, Prison Fellowship has partnered with prisoners, families and wardens to offer education and programs that support individuals and communities. At the same time, they advocate for policy changes on the federal and state levels. Prison Fellowship’s successful ministry is rooted in its ability to consistently integrate its faith-based mission throughout its many initiatives. By taking its mission seriously in its interactions with public policy, organizational practices and public communications, Prison Fellowship broadens the dominant criminal justice narrative.

Understanding and Engaging the Public Policy Context

Faith-based organizations may not typically be associated with criminal justice reform, and yet Prison Fellowship is a distinctly Christian organization committed to supporting the restoration of those affected by incarceration. It’s faith identity uniquely positions it as a bridge between government, families, churches, prisoners and the community. In particular, by being aware of its surrounding public policy context, Prison Fellowship is able to promote comprehensive restoration that addresses crime prevention, treatment of people in prison and reintegration into the community.

According to Jeremiah Mosteller, Advocacy Operations Manager at Prison Fellowship, returning citizens currently face 48,000 laws that prevent them from finding employment, securing housing and exercising their right to vote. Yet for the past 35 years, Prison Fellowship has been advocating to members of Congress to pass legislation that supports communities, promotes safety for people in prison and assists returning citizens.

“We believe our call in the scriptures goes beyond just visiting those in prison,” said Mosteller. “It calls us to speak out and be an advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves.”

As an advocate, Prison Fellowship remains aware of how the flaws in today’s criminal justice system particularly disadvantage people of color. In an article, Prison Fellowship shares how race contributes to disparities in the juvenile justice system: in New Jersey, for example, of the 1,251 youth prosecutors asked to try as adults, 86.7 of them were people of color. In light of this injustice, Prison Fellowship works with state lawmakers to raise the minimum age that youths can be tried as adults.

Like many other faith-based organizations, Prison Fellowship finds making staffing decisions based on faith to be a central part of its mission. As part of Sacred Sector’s resources for faith-based organizations, Sacred Sector offers toolboxes on key subject matter areas related to the faith-based nonprofit sector. The Religious Staffing Public Policy Toolbox indicates:

The VII of federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans employment discrimination based on a number of protected classes, including religion, but it includes an exemption protecting religious staffing by religious organizations. Considering religion when hiring means more than asking whether an individual self identifies with the faith of the organization. It also extends to assessing whether the applicant or employee lives consistently with the FBO’s understanding of its religious precepts and practices.

Mosteller has noted that Prison Fellowship is having ongoing conversations about the importance of preserving religious staffing for faith-based organizations. Because it operates in all 50 states, the organization also remains aware of religious staffing laws on the federal and state level.

In addition to advocacy, Prison Fellowship cultivates relationships with other organizations — both faith-based and secular — to further its mission. Prison Fellowship’s Second Chance Month initiative is a bipartisan national movement that takes place every April to raise awareness of the challenges faced by formerly imprisoned Americans returning to society. Organizations across the political spectrum join together in support of this initiative.

“It is important to see such diverse organizations come together, from ACLU, to Heritage to Koch to Prison Fellowship,” said Mosteller. Some of the Second Chance Month efforts include 5k races, policy briefings, press events, petitions and social media campaigns. By partnering with diverse organizations and advocating for just criminal justice policies, Prison Fellowship demonstrates how faith-based organizations can positively impact their public policy context.

For more information on how nonprofits can shape public policy, login to the Participant Portal or sign up for Sacred Sector to access the Religious Staffing Public Policy Toolbox.

Conclusion

Prison Fellowship’s collaborative initiatives and comprehensive advocacy efforts indicate how faith-based organizations make vital contributions to criminal justice reform. Issues as complicated as criminal justice require complex solutions involving not just governments or individuals, but also the nonprofit and faith-based sectors. By advocating for reforms on the federal and state level, Prison Fellowship confirms that faith-based organizations are involved in promoting equitable criminal justice policies. Prison Fellowship’s bipartisan efforts also show faith-based organizations’ unique ability to bridge partisan gaps. When faith-based organizations effectively engage in public policy, they highlight the transformative work accomplished through their faith-based mission.    

If you are not a Sacred Sector participant and would like access to resources on public policy, organizational practices and public positioning for faith-based organizations, sign up to become a Sacred Sector participant here.

Kathryn Mae Post is an intern with the Center for Public Justice (CPJ). She contributes to two different initiatives at CPJ: Sacred Sector and the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA). She is graduating from Calvin College in May of 2018 with a BA in both political science and English.

Frame Works Institute. (2014). “Taking Criminal Justice and Public Safety: A FrameWorks Message Memo.” [PDF]. Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://frameworksinstitute.org/pubs/mm/criminaljustice/toc.html

The Sentencing Project. (2017). “Criminal Justice Facts.” Retrieved from https://www.sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts/