In the early 19th century, evangelicals were at the forefront of prison reform—England’s Elizabeth Fry being a foremost example. Today, while many churches have or support prison ministries of mercy and evangelism, very few work on criminal justice reform. Four out of five American churches (80%) say they are not currently involved in advocacy to reform the criminal justice system, according to statistics from new LifeWay Research published this year. But among those that are involved, African American pastors are two-and-a-half times more likely (42%) than white pastors (16%) to say that they are currently involved.

The PICO National Network is trying to change those statistics. Its Live Free campaign organizes dozens of predominantly black and Latino pastors to address mass incarceration and gun violence in their communities.

PICO works across faith traditions, and since the campaign started in 2010, it has partnered with evangelical institutions like the Exponential Conference and Urbana to teach about mass incarceration.

Michael McBride, director of the Live Free campaign, said, “I try to remind people that when it comes to addressing systems of justice, our battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers.”

Prison Fellowship’s traditional way of engaging churchgoers has been through ministries of mercy. Its Angel Tree program encourages donors to purchase presents for the children of prisoners. McBride’s wife benefited from the program herself as a child.

Earlier this year, however, Prison Fellowship also created an advocacy volunteer coordinator.

And this May, Prison Fellowship announced an 18-member Faith and Justice Fellowship. The bipartisan network of politicians, ...

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