The Future of Criminal Justice Reform: A Conversation with Heather Rice-Minus

By Liam Carroll and Debora Haede

The First Step Act was signed into law on December 21, 2018, and is considered by many to be a major breakthrough in criminal justice reform. In this interview, Heather Rice-Minus, Vice President of Government Affairs & Church Mobilizationat Prison Fellowship, talks with Center for Public Justice interns Liam Carroll and Debora Haede about the impact of the First Step Act and offers insight into what’s next for criminal justice reform. 

LC & DH: What led you to pursue a career in the criminal justice field and how does your faith inform your work?  

HRM: I guess you could say it pursued me. I developed a passion for public policy when I interned for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute the summer after completing my undergraduate degree. I wanted to get a law degree so I could advocate for child welfare policy reforms, but I decided to spend a gap year abroad before law school in East Africa, teaching English and volunteering in orphanages. Being proximate with the issue I wanted to work on and adapting to a totally different culture proved to be a pivotal year in my life. It shaped and sharpened my faith and worldview. I returned from that influential year abroad to the first semester at the Antonin Scalia Law School. I was wholly depressed by contracts, torts, and civil procedure. I didn’t want to quit, and I wanted to find something that would remind me why I was putting myself through this.

I started working part-time for a small nonprofit focused on the treatment of detainees. I took classes at night and during the summer so I could work and still graduate on time. Eventually, the organization opened a portfolio into prison conditions and asked me to lead the associated policy and program work. My eyes were opened to our fractured criminal justice system: one fueled by disproportionate sentences; 2.2 million people incarcerated and another four million on probation or parole; prisoners being held in cells by themselves for 23 hours a day, released for a single hour to a larger space for exercise (still without any meaningful contact with another human being), [and] incarcerated women being shackled during pregnancy and childbirth. The list goes on.

Most Christians would readily recognize the Bible’s call to visit those in prison with the hope of the Gospel, but there is often a disconnect about bringing the Gospel’s values to bear in the public square.

I recognized the Christian community in America, to which I belonged, had in many ways contributed to the status quo of the criminal justice system. Most Christians would readily recognize the Bible’s call to visit those in prison with the hope of the Gospel, but there is often a disconnect about bringing the Gospel’s values to bear in the public square. When I saw an opening on Prison Fellowship’s policy team, I thought, “How great would it be to work for an organization that represents my faith and has influence to mobilize the Church to advance justice?” I’ve been with Prison Fellowship for nearly seven years. Whether I’m hitting the pavement on Capitol Hill to push our legislative agenda, training one of our Justice Ambassadors on how to effectively share their story with their Senator’s district office, or speaking to a campus or church about how to respond to over-incarceration, it’s never a dull day. I get to do all this through the lens of my Christian faith. 

The New York Times praised the First Step Act for making one of "the most significant changes to the criminal justice system in a generation.” Do you agree? Can you give our readers a sense of what it meant to you personally, after working on the issue for so long? 

I would say it’s the most significant change to the federal criminal justice system in a generation. The “criminal justice system” includes not just the federal system, but also the 50 states and all the local systems. The federal prison population is the largest with more than 180,000 people but that is a drop in the bucket compared to the combined state prison populations. The First Step Act specifically targets reforms at the federal level, so while it is incredibly important and significant, there’s still so much left to be done and the states have to be addressed one by one. Luckily there’s already been great progress by the states and in many ways, their success paved the road for the First Step Act. 

For me personally, seeing the First Step Act finally pass was surreal. I’ve been working on some form of this bill for over five years. We had gotten close so many times, but had never been able to get it over the finish line. The biggest hurdle was the Senate and I literally had tears streaming down my face as I watched the overwhelming bipartisan vote count. A faith-based amendment we worked on was the only [amendment] that passed. A few days later, I watched the House floor vote from the gallery with coalition partners from the far right and the far left. It took an unlikely cast of characters coming together to get this done. It’s a tremendous privilege to play a small role in this bill becoming law and seeing people like Matthew Charles come home as a result gives me so much joy. 

The First Step Act was an important step forward, but there is still more to accomplish. In your opinion, what is the biggest priority now? 

Passing the law was a major challenge, but that’s only half the battle. We are hard at work on implementation, including ensuring that the law is fully funded and that more programming, including the Prison Fellowship Academy, is made available in federal prisons. We’re also pushing for greater access to higher education in prison. Before the 1994 crime bill, incarcerated students had access to Pell grants, making college programs a staple in American prison life. After the 1994 crime bill made incarcerated students ineligible for Pell, the opportunities for college in prison dwindled significantly. Providing higher education in prisons recognizes the human dignity and God-given potential of men and women behind bars and can unlock second chances. 

Passing the law was a major challenge, but that’s only half the battle.

Incarcerated people who participate in educational programs in prison are 43 percent less likely to recidivate than those who don’t. Corrections organizations, like the Association of State Correctional Administrators, support legislation to lift the ban because of the powerful effects education can have on prison culture. There is growing bipartisan momentum for this reform and, given that it would infuse dollars into a proven recidivism-reduction program in both federal and state prisons, it’s a logical next step to the First Step Act. 

[See Heather’s op-ed in The Hill and Shared Justice’s “Lifting the Ban on Pell Grants” to learn more about higher education in prisons.]

It’s clear that government has a role to play. How should civil society institutions like churches, nonprofits, and businesses also seek to serve incarcerated and returning citizens? 

We can all play a role in advancing a more restorative-approach justice in America. From advocating for alternatives to incarceration and volunteering in a prison program, to hiring someone with a criminal record, there is a way for all the members of civil society to contribute.  The now over 300 organizations, businesses, and congregations partnering with Prison Fellowship to celebrate April as Second Chance Month is a great example. 

This nationwide effort raises awareness about the barriers to education, jobs, and housing faced by people with a criminal record. The coalition of nonprofits, businesses, and congregations seeks to unlock second chances through social media, press, events, advocacy and more. We also have a lot of resources for churches to get involved in advocacy, from our Second Chance Sunday toolkit (both available to churches who sign-up as Second Chance Month partners) to our small group curriculum Outrageous Justice. I hope some readers will register for our upcoming webinar on how churches can get involved in advocacy!

How can we be praying for you in your work, and for the individuals and families impacted by incarceration?

I recently visited incarcerated men in the Prison Fellowship Academy in Oklahoma. One man shared that when you go to prison and everyone treats you like a convict, you internalize that as your identity and then act that way. He said the Academy helps men to change their thinking to recognize their purpose and true identity. He said it was the first program he’s seen after serving decades in prison not just to change individuals but to actually break the negative atmosphere of the whole prison. 

I responded that his description was a parallel to what we are trying to do on the outside – get Christians to change their thinking about how they see “convicts.” We want people to recognize that incarcerated people are created in the image of God and that disproportional punishment, inhumane treatment, and never ending collateral consequences of a criminal conviction do not reflect what the Bible teaches about justice. We must change hearts and minds so we can change the justice system’s negative atmosphere that values revenge over restoration. 

Then I shared with the men about Outrageous Justice and how there are actually people all over the country using this study right now to help inspire the Church and advance justice that restores. Their eyes lit up and they were so encouraged by this. Please pray that men and women behind bars would find their true identity in Christ that makes all things new. Pray for the comfort of the loved ones that they have left behind, particularly the 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent. Pray for yourself, your community and our nation – that we would pursue justice and restoration. 

Liam Carroll attends Gordon College where he is pursuing an International Affairs major with a minor in Political Science. He was as an intern with the Center for Public Justice during the summer of 2019.

Debora Haede attends Calvin University, majoring in International Relations and minoring in Economics with a Pre-Law specialization. She was as an intern with the Center for Public Justice during the summer of 2019. 

Heather Rice-Minus is the Vice President of Government Affairs & Church Mobilization at Prison Fellowship, the nation's largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families.


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