Faith leaders support reducing mandatory sentences for drug offenses

Clergy say the Smarter Sentencing Act, poised for vote in the Senate, would alleviate dangerous prison overcrowding and racial disparity in incarceration.

By Bob Allen

More than 1,100 clergy and faith leaders urged Congress to pass legislation reducing federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses in a June 3 letter to party leaders in the House and Senate.

A total of 1,129 signers asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to support the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan measure that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January.

The faith leaders said tough sentencing laws passed in the 1980s “war on drugs” disproportionately affect minorities. A 2010 book by civil-rights litigator Michelle Alexander termed mass incarceration “The New Jim Crow,” because of racial inequality in the justice system.

“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,” the letter said.

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

roy medleyRoy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, was a lead signer for the letter 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.

Other Baptist signers included Aundreia Alexander, an anti-poverty specialist with American Baptist Home Mission Societies; Mary Andreolli, website and networking specialist for the Alliance of Baptists; Larry Greenfield, executive minister of American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago; Virginia Holmstrom, executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries; Kenneth Marsenburg, director of development for American Baptist Churches USA; Marcia Patton, executive minister of Evergreen Association of American Baptist Churches in the Northwest United States; LeDayne Polaski, program coordinator for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and several local church pastors.

The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for many federal drug offenses by half and give judges more discretion in sentencing for drug crimes. It also adds new mandatory minimum sentences for sexual abuse, domestic violence and some terrorism offenses.

The bipartisan measure has broad support across the political spectrum from the NAACP and the ACLU to Texas Gov. Rick Perry and tax-reform advocate Grover Norquist. Some local law-enforcement groups are lobbying against it, fearing reducing the federal prison sentences will pass expenses and overcrowding down to local jails.

A group of former government officials including William Bennett, who served as the nation’s first drug czar under the first President Bush, opposed the bill in a letter to Senate leaders May 12, saying mandatory minimum sentencing contributes to the nation’s success in fighting crime.

“We believe our current sentencing regimen strikes the right balance between Congressional direction in the establishment of sentencing levels, due regard for appropriate judicial direction, and the preservation of public safety,” the letter said. “We have made great gains in reducing crime. Our current sentencing framework has kept us safe and should be preserved.”