Article by: Kara Gotsch is the Director of Advocacy for the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, a project of the United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society.
Clergy and faith leaders are successfully flexing their political muscle with lawmakers in Washington, DC, to end mass incarceration. Last month the new chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), was confronted by three Iowa bishops — a United Methodist, a Catholic and a Lutheran — who wrote an op-ed for the Des Moines Register newspaper urging the senator to move much-needed bipartisan sentencing reform legislation through his committee. They called for a reduction in the long mandatory-minimum sentences faced by federal defendants convicted of drug offenses.
“We believe in accountability for the men and women responsible for selling illegal drugs,” the bishops wrote. “Those who are addicted themselves and sell drugs to support their habit should have access to rehabilitative services. Punishment for distributing drugs is necessary; however, where we seek to influence our elected leaders is in how much punishment is justified.”
The bishops went on to outline the problematic mandatory-minimum sentencing structure for federal drug offenses. During the 1980s, at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, Congress crafted tough sentencing laws that still exist today for drug crimes. The quantity of drugs defendants possess generally determines the length of their mandatory-minimum sentence, ranging from 5 to 10 to 20 years or life imprisonment without parole, even for non-violent offenses. Judges are given little discretion to sentence below a mandatory penalty. Factors like the age of a defendant, their mental capacity, their level of responsibility, or their capacity for change are largely irrelevant.
Approximately 100,000 people today are incarcerated in federal prison for drug offenses. They comprise about half the federal prison population. According to research from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency within the federal judicial branch, about half of the defendants sentenced for drug offenses during 2013 had little or no criminal history. Ninety-three percent did not play a leadership or supervisory role in their offense.
The bishops spoke out in the press after joining a letter to Sen. Grassley signed by 130 Iowa interfaith leaders in April. It said:
Our ministries call us to comfort and serve those harmed by crime, support accountability, rehabilitation, and restoration for those who offend, and counsel families experiencing the painful outcomes of crime. From this vantage point, we have come to recognize the need for fundamental changes to the nation’s justice system … .We believe justice can be better served and proportionality restored by lowering penalties. The unnecessarily lengthy incarceration of people with drug offenses has burdened the federal criminal-justice system and produced increasing costs that are unsustainable.
Over the last 18 months, the issue of criminal-justice reform, and sentencing reform in particular, has garnered surprising bipartisan support in Congress. Legislation called the Smarter Sentencing Act was first introduced in 2013 by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill) and Mike Lee (R-Utah). The bill would reduce by half the mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses and apply 2010 enacted sentencing reductions for crack cocaine offenses to people now serving time under the old, racially discriminatory sentencing structure. The bill would also give federal judges additional discretion to sentence certain low-level defendants below a mandatory minimum.
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