Hundreds of faith leaders affiliated with more than 40 faith organizations, including Roman Catholics, Jews, Evangelical Protestants and Mainline Protestants signed onto a letter calling on Congress to support the Smarter Sentencing Act (S1410/HR3382). This action represents a growing movement of religious leaders speaking out on the problem of over incarceration and harsh sentencing policies.
The letter was coordinated by the Faith in Action Criminal Justice Reform Working Group, a coalition of 43 faith organizations chaired by the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society. This builds on a campaign by other religious leaders who released an Easter Statement calling for an end to drug criminalization in April.
If passed, the act would reduce mandatory-minimum sentences for individuals convicted of federal drug offenses. The call for smarter sentencing is indicative of the shortsightedness and haste in which our sentencing and drug laws are made and the lack of any real assessment of the socio-economic and public health impact of these laws on families.
Mandatory minimum sentences have wreaked havoc on mostly black and brown families and low income communities. The atrocities that exist in the federal criminal justice system cannot and should not be ignored. There are currently 2000 individuals in the federal system who are serving a life without parole sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. Additionally, of the 216,000 individuals in the federal prison system, 50 percent are locked up for a drug offense. Our policymakers in Washington D.C believed then and continue to believe that passing laws that are unconscionable and morally reckless are politically savvy when done in the name of public safety.
They were wrong.
According to The Sentencing Project, the number of women in prison mostly for drug offenses have increased at nearly half the rate of men since 1980. These women are usually heads of household and have a history of physical abuse, substance abuse and high rates of HIV infection. For Black men in their thirties, one in ten is in prison on any given day. In 2011, there were close to 500,000 Black men in prison. For Congress and the White House to ignore this gross injustice would be to reduce a generation of Americans to what Michelle Alexander describes another kind of caste system.
The passage of this bill is just one giant step in our collective march toward reforming the criminal justice system and to ending America’s draconian drug policies. While national and local religious leaders are calling on Congress to make smarter sentencing policies, it is also a moment for these leaders to look deeper at the root of the problem of drug sentencing and incarceration, and urge Congress to pass smarter drug policies.
If we care about ending mass incarceration then we should also care about ending the war on drugs. That means having the hard conversation on ending federal marijuana prohibition, decriminalizing drugs for personal use and once and for all taking personal drug use out of the criminal justice system.
Redemption is available to all – including our lawmakers in Congress.
Yolande Cadore is the director of strategic partnerships for the Drug Policy Alliance.