WASHINGTON — President Trump often cites prison reform as one of his major legislative accomplishments. It's also one of the first reasons he offers when suggesting his appeal among African Americans should be stronger in the run-up to the November elections.
Now, more than a year and a half after it was signed into law, we're learning more about the impact of the First Step Act.
According to the Trump administration, the federal prison population is down 15 percent from the time Trump first took office in January 2017.
From 200,000 men and women in the federal system in 2001, now down to just under 160,000, that change represents a near 20 year low.
"A lot of African Americans have left our federal facilities and gone home to be reunited with their families under this president," Tony Lowden, pastor of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, GA, told CBN News.
Lowden ticked off a laundry list of accomplishments including prison and sentencing reform, funding for historically black colleges, and opportunity zones in low-income areas as a defense against the criticism to Pres. Trump’s repeated claims that he has done more for African Americans than any other president since Abraham Lincoln.
"Absolutely, the numbers don’t lie," he replied when pressed if he agrees with that assessment.
Lowden also serves as Trump's 'reentry czar' on the president's Federal Interagency Council on Crime and Prevention and Improving Reentry, which met this week to highlight the turnaround.
The council also announced the launch of a new government website to help recently-released inmates with housing, employment, and educational resources.
"This administration is leading," Lowden explained, discussing the council's meeting that included several cabinet secretaries in the White House Situation Room.
"Reentry [doesn't] start once a person gets out. It starts on the inside of the prison: taking HHS (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) and bringing them on the inside and dealing with mental health," he said.
"More importantly, we have 180,000 men and women in our prisons who are veterans, who've come home from all our wars, and they come home traumatized because of what they've done defending Old Glory," Lowden explained. "And now they find themselves, because they did not make a smooth transition, in our prisons. And so what we have decided to do is tailor reentry programs to help them as well—getting them the counseling they need."
Lowden, whose most famous church attendee is a former U.S. president, told CBN News about the significance of "second acts" in Christian theology and how his own personal journey threw him into the middle of today's cultural and political crossfire.
"As Christian believers, we have to die to self," he said referring to the teachings of the apostle Paul. "And when God calls us to do something, [you] fall in line and do that."
"A lot of people sent me hate mail because I took a position, as a conservative, [to] go work with Jimmy Carter when he called me to pastor his church," he explained. "And then I received a lot of hate mail from people that said, 'You shouldn't be working with President Trump.' But God has blessed me to be able to work with both presidents at the same time—to be able to counsel both of them—working with one spiritually as he gets ready to go home; and working with one who's working day to day to try to make America better."
To Lowden, the attacks confirm he's doing the work God called him to do – a call he feels is universal among followers of Jesus.
"I believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that God's called the faith community to do more and to do the same thing that I'm doing in the position that I am: to be able to tell America and tell those servants leaders—who are supposed to serve our public—what a servant leader looks like with a servant's heart."
"I'm a little boy from North Philadelphia – just someone who found Christ when his nana said, 'You come to church, and I'll bake you banana pudding,'" he recounted. "From that I ended up in one of the most powerful rooms today to be able to put Christ on display all around."