Today, April 16, during Holy Week, faith leaders in coordination with the Drug Policy Alliance held a telepress conference to call for an end to the War on Drugs. Below are my remarks.
This Holy Week as we remember the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ we remember that this weekend marks the culmination of a life of ministry which began with the words of the prophet Isaiah,
The Sprit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19
As followers of Jesus, the mantle that Jesus took on, his calling to ministry is applicable to all those who receive the gift of his grace this Easter. We too are called to proclaim release to the captives and to set free the oppressed.
Unfortunately, because the United States imprisons more people than any nation on earth, we do not have to go far to proclaim Jesus’ message of liberation. We are first in the world in mass incarceration and one of the main drivers of this sin is the War on Drugs, 40 years of failed policies that have done little to nothing to curb drug dependence and have instead broken up families, destroyed communities and cost billions of dollars.
Fortunately, just as we receive hope this week in resurrection Sunday, there are steps that we as a nation can take to extricate ourselves from our own captivity. One step is the Smarter Sentencing Act, S. 1401. The Smarter Sentencing Act is a bipartisan bill, sponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL). The legislation is an incremental step towards justice reform that would address the costly overcrowding crisis in the Bureau of Prisons by cutting in half the mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses and by authorizing judicial review of cases sentenced under the old 100 to 1 crack cocaine sentencing disparity for possible resentencing.
I chair the largest and only faith coalition working to reform the criminal justice system on Capitol Hill. The Faith in Action Criminal Justice Reform Working Group is made up over 35 faith organizations representing millions of people of all faiths and our primary goal this year is to see the Smarter Sentencing Act enacted. We have met with numerous Senate offices, we have activated our grassroots folks and coalition members are sending letters to the Senate every day during the month of April urging movement on this bill during the month of May.
Throughout the U.S. the members of our denominations and organizations dedicate countless hours to aiding, ministering with and advocating for people impacted by the criminal justice system. We are gravely concerned that overly punitive mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, passed by Congress nearly 30 years ago, have disproportionately and unfairly incarcerated people of color for low-level and nonviolent offenses.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission has testified before the Judiciary Committee that Black and Hispanic defendants constitute the majority of people subject to mandatory minimum sentences and existing opportunities for relief from them are less often available to African American defendants. Passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act would help restore fairness in our justice system by limiting this existing racial disparity. Therefore, we urge Leader Reid to make the passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act a priority during the month of May.