More Than 1,100 Religious Leaders Push Congress For Reform In Federal Drug Cases

More than 1,100 religious leaders from 40 faith groups have endorsed a letter to Congress in support of a reform bill on federal drug cases.

Faith communities fear that long sentences for drug offenses will negatively affect individuals, families and communities, the Faith in Action Criminal Justice Reform Working Group said in a press release. The Smarter Sentencing Act (S 1410/HR 3382) proposes reducing mandatory-minimum sentences for federal drug offenses, which would address prison overcrowding, and is currently awaiting a Senate vote.

There are currently more than 217,000 federal prisoners, the press release notes, nearly half of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses.

The interfaith group of leaders includes Roman Catholics, Jews, Evangelical Protestants and Mainline Protestants who come from nearly all 50 states.

Their full letter sent to Congress on June 3 reads:

Dear Senators Reid and McConnell and Representatives Boehner and Pelosi:

As clergy and faith leaders from a diversity of beliefs, we believe in the inherent dignity of all people. We believe the criminal justice system should treat people, regardless of their offense, justly and humanely. We call on you to uphold these principles by supporting and passing the Smarter Sentencing Act, S. 1410/H.R. 3382.

Nearly 30 years ago, Congress passed legislation creating excessive mandatory-minimum penalties for many low-level and non-violent drug offenses. The result was a dramatic increase in the federal prison population that is both expensive and counterproductive. Today over 217,000 men and women are warehoused in over-crowded federal institutions, families are split apart, lives have been wasted, and drug abuse and addiction continues to plague our communities.

A national conversation has begun to address the nationwide incarceration crisis and change in state sentencing policy has resulted. In the last decade, 17 states around the country reduced their incarceration rates and saw continued declines in crime rates. It is now time for Congress to act.

The Smarter Sentencing Act is an incremental approach to reduce the mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of low-level and non-violent drug offenses. The bill would also apply the bipartisan 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which lowered sentences for the lowest-level cases involving crack cocaine, to people currently in prison under the old sentencing structure. About 8,800 people, with 88% of them being African American, would be eligible to apply to a judge for a sentence reduction. The legislation also slightly expands the federal “safety valve” exception, allowing judges to sentence below a drug mandatory-minimum if numerous mitigating qualifications are met.

For too long, Congress has ignored the consequences of the harsh sentencing policies it approved during the 1980s and the disproportionate harm it has caused people of color and those convicted of low-level offenses. We are reminded that Scripture commands us, “Justice, and only justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

The Smarter Sentencing Act is a step towards addressing racial injustice as well as reducing mass incarceration that characterizes our current justice system.

Passage of this legislation can help bring relief to members of our congregations and faith communities and we strongly urge you to pursue justice and to support the Smarter Sentencing Act.