Yolanda Flournah-Perkins will never carry more than two keys at a time.
Perkins, a convicted felon, felt like little more than a number every time corrections officers in Tallahassee, Fla., conducted their required counting of inmates at the federal prison where she was held for nearly three years. She remembers the enormous amounts of keys the officers carried—it seemed like hundreds on one ring—and ever since, she’s organized her life to avoid being haunted by the chilling cacophony of thin metal slivers brushing against one another.
“You don’t want to be assigned a number like me: 25379-018,” Perkins says. “Who wants to have that number hardened in them forever? I can’t get rid of this number.”
To the degree it’s possible, Perkins wants to eliminate reminders of her incarceration. That’s why she never wears brown khakis (an indelible part of her prison uniform), and why her children will never sleep in bunk beds (part of the accommodations in her cell).
Perkins likely doesn’t fit whatever image may come to mind when you envision a federal convict, though. At the time of her sentencing, she was a 23-year-old on the verge of completing her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at the University of Central Florida. She had a smile that could light up the darkest room and the ebullient personality to match. Not only had Perkins never been in trouble with the law, she didn’t know anyone who had. She wasn’t involved in violence or caught up in drugs, yet she had developed a habit that was wrong—deeply, criminally wrong.
In exchange for free rent, Perkins worked in the mailroom of an off-campus dormitory beginning in 1999. That was where temptation got the best of her: She spent three years stealing hundreds of credit cards that had been mailed to other people and using them herself, ultimately spending well over $100,000.
Eventually, according to multiple news reports, investigators got suspicious and caught her by hiding a camera in the mailroom. Perkins says she was making purchases for her boyfriend, though journalists reported she also spent a good deal of the money on herself. “I just wanted this guy to like me,” Perkins recalls. “It wasn’t until later that I would realize I had a severe issue of low self-esteem.”
Perkins had committed a federal crime—possession of stolen mail—and the penalty attached would upend her life. “I knew what I was doing was wrong. I just did not anticipate the consequences to be so severe that I would have to go to prison,” Perkins says, also recalling that the harsh glare of the media spotlight only added to her sense of shock and hopelessness at the time. “I’m so grateful there was no social media because [if there had been] I probably would have committed suicide.”
Did Perkins receive justice? Was it fair to lock her—a first-time offender guilty of a white-collar crime—up for years with other inmates who were violent, so much so that Perkins says it was not uncommon to see fellow prisoners hide padlocks in their socks in order to beat one another? Under the country’s sentencing guidelines, three years in federal prison was the mandatory minimum sentence a judge could give Perkins for her crime.
A Growing Concern
Stories like this highlight a growing concern among a sizable group of Christian leaders about the criminal justice system in the United States. They believe the punishments it doles out often don’t fit the crimes.
“God would have us respect somebody and call for a punishment that’s proportionate to the damage that’s been caused,” says Craig DeRoche, senior vice president of advocacy and public policy for Prison Fellowship Ministries, founded 41 years ago by the late Chuck Colson. “God doesn’t want us to come up short, because that devalues human dignity as well. But God certainly would not want us to over-punish people.”
The concerns of Christian leaders like DeRoche, however, go beyond just disproportionate sentencing. The country’s crime rate has been dropping significantly since the early 1990s, yet the Pew Charitable Trusts reports that one in 115 adults was incarcerated in 2015 (the most recent year for which full statistics are available). Though that number was down from one in 100 in 2007, the rate is still four times higher than it was in the 1970s. To put a finer point on the matter, while the U.S. is home to only 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses 25 percent of the world’s inmates and prisoners.
This is evidence, say DeRoche and others, that the whole U.S. criminal justice system is too reliant on incarceration—tending to be far more punitive than restorative. The upshot, in their view, is that it inadvertently encourages lifelong criminal behavior rather than providing genuine second chances for those who have paid their debts to society.
Given the fact that Scripture unequivocally tells us justice is one of God’s primary attributes (Deuteronomy 32:4) and should also be characteristic of His followers (Micah 6:8), these leaders don’t see the problems with the justice system as merely something to bemoan: They see it as an unacceptable state of affairs requiring action.
For years, groups like Prison Fellowship and The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC) have advocated for sweeping federal criminal justice reforms. In late 2016, that advocacy began to take on new urgency.
“It was becoming apparent that, despite much advocacy work from outside groups and legislative will from a number of Democrats and Republicans (on Capitol Hill), criminal justice reform was not going to get done that session,” recalls Travis Wussow, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy and general counsel. “So a conversation between Prison Fellowship and ERLC ensued about the possibility of producing a Christian statement of justice reform.”
The goals, Wussow says, were to maintain the momentum generated by the just-concluded legislative push, and to further galvanize everyday Christians to make their voices heard.
“We know the current system is operating outside of what we would call justice as Christians,” says DeRoche. “But it’s difficult for us to articulate that without having a solid basis for it first.”
Spelling It Out
Clearly and concisely spelling out Christian teaching on justice was a process that would consume the next few months. In addition to Prison Fellowship and the ERLC, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the Colson Center for Worldview joined forces to lead the ambitious effort. The organizations gathered a small group of Christian leaders together for a meeting this February, at which a vision for the statement was cast.
From there, Dr. C. Ben Mitchell—a Union University ethicist selected as the project writer—began drafting a white paper to serve as the template for the final statement. By mid-May, after months of feedback and revision by ministry leaders, a near-final version was complete.
On June 20, members of the core leadership group came together at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to unveil and sign the statement, called the Justice Declaration (available in full and for signing at justicedeclaration.org). So far, thousands of Christians have shown their support by signing online, and leaders are hoping thousands more do the same.
The Declaration is comprised of 10 key points, urging Christ-followers to affirm God’s inherent justice, treat every person as an image-bearer of the Lord, strengthen sources of moral formation (neighborhoods, families, churches), and care for crime survivors. The document also includes calls to stand up for the poor and vulnerable, share the Gospel with and disciple inmates, and welcome ex-offenders back into society.
“When public policy intersects with our values as Christians, it’s important for us to articulate what our values are,” says DeRoche.
A Push for
Of course, that intersection of policy and values can often be more like a collision, so the Justice Declaration is not pure vanilla. Point Seven exhorts Christians to “advocate for proportional punishment, including alternatives to incarceration, that protects public safety, fosters accountability and provides opportunities to make amends.”
Leaders like DeRoche insist the Justice Declaration is a foundational document outlining what Christians believe about justice, not a missive intended to advocate for specific legislation. Yet they did deliver the finished product to leading members of Congress, hoping that if lawmakers give serious consideration to Christian principles on justice, the Declaration will eventually shape public policy.
For example, DeRoche believes the Declaration calls into question the fairness of federal drug-sentencing laws applied in cookie-cutter fashion. Another practice he sees as out of alignment with justice is giving juveniles life sentences that can’t be revisited. ““We’re not saying they should [always] get out of prison,” says DeRoche. “We’re saying you should be proportionate before you make a decision on someone’s life.”
Another development the Justice Declaration collaborators would welcome is for Congress to again consider the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The measure, which Prison Fellowship helped craft, would put in place new measures to reduce recidivism and cut mandatory minimum sentences for a number of offenses, including five-year reductions for some nonviolent drug crimes.
The bill won bipartisan support from lawmakers in 2016 and breezed through committee hearings. However, it was never brought to the Senate floor for a vote. Some lawmakers and media pundits suspected the upcoming presidential election may have hampered its progress.
Without the heat of a presidential election as the backdrop, signers of the Justice Declaration believe this year could be different.
“I’m optimistic because we have a great God and in Him all things are possible,” says DeRoche. “And I believe there are encouraging signs from the Senate and Congress that there’s still a lot of interest in reforming the prison system, and we believe this will lead to sentencing reform.”
Some advocacy groups, such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), don’t think the Sentencing and Reform Act goes far enough. In 2016, FAMM founder Julie Stewart criticized the bill, saying, “When first-time, nonviolent drug addicts … still get 15-year mandatory minimum sentences, we have to question how much reform is really being achieved.”
Wussow acknowledges the bill is imperfect, but still considers it a 2017 legislative priority, saying, “It’s a good place to start.”
Federal criminal justice reform does face potentially formidable headwinds. Allowing for the possibility of reduced and alternative sentences is a reversal from the “tough on crime” laws that swept the country in the 1980s and ’90s. Some law-and-order conservatives, such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), credit those laws for cutting the nation’s crime rate to its lowest level in 50 years. Cotton has called Congress’s attempt at criminal justice reform “the criminal leniency bill.”
Then there’s the question of whether the Trump administration would welcome reform. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposed the Sentencing and Reform Act during his time in the Senate. This May, he ordered stricter guidance on federal criminal sentencing, saying prosecutors should “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.” Sessions did, however, add that his edict was not aimed at low-level drug offenses. The White House and Department of Justice did not return calls from Citizen seeking comment for this story.
The Justice Declaration collaborators believe evidence supporting federal criminal justice reform is on their side. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 30 states have reformed their sentencing and corrections policies in order to slow the growth and contain the costs of their corrections systems since 2007. (At the time, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found combined federal, state and local corrections spending exceeded $74 billion.) Between 2010 and 2015, while these changes were taking hold state by state, the Justice Department found the nation’s crime rate dropped 14.6 percent as its imprisonment rate fell 8.4 percent.
Interestingly, the states with the boldest sentencing reforms also had some of the greatest reductions in crime rates. “We’re hoping those examples of success will be brought to the federal level,” says DeRoche.
As for the idea that “tough on crime”-era strict sentencing has helped reduce the nation’s crime rate, reform advocates acknowledge it may have played a role. The Pew Charitable Trusts says increased incarceration may be responsible for about one quarter of the nation’s 50-percent drop in crime over the past 25 years. However, a 2014 study by the National Research Council found the strategy of fighting crime by locking more people up for longer terms has long since passed the point of diminishing public safety returns.
In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found the tougher sentences weren’t restoring inmates to society as good citizens: Half the inmates who left state prisons in 2005 were back behind bars within three years.
“People that support the status quo are supporting the failure of the current system, where more than six out of 10 people return to prison, where people don’t get sober, where people don’t reunite with their families, where they don’t go back to work and become self-sufficient,” says DeRoche. “But when you have an alternative sentence that keeps somebody (out of) prison, where it holds them accountable in a drug court or veterans court [program], what you get is sobriety. What you get is them holding a job. What you get is them reuniting with their family.”
A Document for Everyday Christians
Toward that end, the Justice Declaration is meant to guide all Christians—not just public officials—in breaking down barriers for those who’ve earned a second chance.
For example, many professional associations and employers refuse to accept ex-felons. Perhaps, leaders say, a Christian human resources director who has taken the Justice Declaration to heart would be more open to hearing an ex-offender’s story and giving that person a chance. “When you have one in four American adults with a criminal record and then you put 48,000 barriers toward them providing for their family and being self-sufficient, you are in fact contributing to dependence on government services and the failure of the family,” says DeRoche.
Flournah-Perkins beat the odds, though it took several months and hundreds of applications to do so. Fluent in two languages, she eventually connected with an employer willing to give her a second chance, securing a job that uses her skills as a translator.
Free for over a decade, Perkins’s life today revolves around her relationships with Christ (which began behind bars), her husband Dwight and children, Dwight III, 6, and Bella, 4. She will soon earn her second graduate degree, a doctorate in organizational leadership.
Professionally, Perkins is a speaker and author who helps formerly incarcerated women turn their adversities into opportunities. She hopes the Justice Declaration achieves its authors’ vision of a justice system that restores instead of mostly punishing offenders.
Perkins, after all, has seen firsthand how difficult it is for ex-felons to find work. She’s experienced the desperate sense that destiny won’t let them outrun the misdeeds of their past, making them feel as if returning to crime is their only option. “They’re doing stuff they’re not supposed to, but they have to feed their family,” she says. “How are they supposed to survive?”
If the Justice Declaration achieves its ends, the authors believe that question will have better answers. More people will leave the criminal justice system with the hope of restoration, the authors say, instead of the sense that they’ve been forgotten or marginalized.
“There are no throwaway people,” says DeRoche. “God didn’t create throwaway people.”
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Originally published in the September 2017 issue of Citizen magazine.