Congress can help strengthen families and communities by acting on criminal justice reform

Families are the basic building block of society. I‘ve witnessed this reality after nearly two decades in ministry counseling individuals and families from all walks of life. I noticed that when family life thrived, so too did my congregation. Inversely, when families suffered, the negative effects reached across the whole community.

I was compelled to run for Congress to strengthen the family unit and promote a message of hope and opportunity. I ran to make real, tangible changes to improve lives for everyday Americans. For America to remain the pillar of strength, we need the family unit to remain strong.

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Unfortunately, government stacks the deck against many American families. putting roadblocks in their paths when they really need the helping hand of their neighbor and some personal responsibility. Perhaps there is no greater culprit of this than the current criminal justice system.

Right now, there are more than 2 million people in American prisons or jails. But this number is not just a simple statistic. Each person incarcerated is part of a family and of a community, and these families and friends feel the weight of incarceration every day. These people are removed from society, unable to provide for their families or give time to their local communities.

While it is important that those that commit crimes bear appropriate consequences for those actions, it cannot be ignored that in many ways, incarceration creates unintended victims—children - who suffer because of an absent parent. There are 2.7 million children under the age of 18 that have an incarcerated parent. These children are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school. They become more likely to live in poverty as their families often suffer a permanent loss of income from having an incarcerated parent or a parent with a criminal record. While the incarceration of a parent affects our whole country, it is especially endemic to African American communities where one in nine children have a parent in prison.

It is important that our justice system does what it was created to do - administer justice. But let’s not equate justice with heavy handedness. While crime rates are roughly half of what they were in previous decades, the incarceration rate has almost tripled since 1980. Part of this trend is driven by longer sentences which have increased from an average 17.9 months in 1988 to 37.5 months in 2012. All this costs taxpayers $30,000 per inmate per year.

True justice demands that after a penalty is paid, there can be redemption. Redemption is an American ideal. We need former prisoners to integrate back into society, restore stability to their families, and contribute to their communities. Government and our nation’s communities have an interest in facilitating this reintegration into society in order to pave the way for individuals to become successful, contributing community members.

Take, for example, Tommy Purcell from Alamance County, N.C. He was first arrested on his 16th birthday starting a 35-year struggle with the law, going on to be arrested roughly 200 times. He failed to stay out of prison in part because, like many former prisoners, it is often difficult to return to an environment conducive for success. Already dealing with a drug and alcohol problem, whenever Tommy left prison to live with family or a homeless shelter, he was surrounded by the substances that led him back to prison. It was finally when Tommy met someone from a faith mentoring group that he was able to break out of this cycle due to the strong support system it provided him. He now spends his time mentoring others and helping them find the same restoration in their own lives.

There are hundreds of stories like Tommy’s from around the country, and America can help lay the path for success for countless more, even while the incarcerated are serving their sentences. For example, if a prisoner participates in reentry programs to get a GED or high school diploma, it drastically reduces their odds of future convictions. In a study of New York prisoners, a group that participated in 10 Bible studies had a 14 percent re-arrest rate compared to 41 percent rate for their peers who did not participate in a similar program.

Criminal justice reform needs to be elevated to the level of importance we afford to other issues that could drastically affect the lives of American citizens. This is an issue where development could have tangible effects on the lives of American families the day reform is passed.

Last Congress, we had a comprehensive package of bills that passed the House Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support that never received a vote on the floor. Many of these bills, along with new reforms introduced this Congress, could provide meaningful reform for prisoners as they serve out their sentences and eventually reenter society. I encourage my colleagues and others interested in this issue to consider ways of helping former prisoners reunite with their families sooner through measures that will help them succeed outside of the prison walls. The House Judiciary Committee should consider meaningful legislation so that America can have a more effective criminal justice system, where prisoners gain the tools they need to provide for their families, not reoffend.

With the broad coalition of House and Senate members supporting bipartisan action, many American families are depending on reform in order to fulfill their God-given potential and have a positive impact on our communities for the generations to come.

Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) is the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest conservative caucus in the House with over 150 members.