A coalition of Christian leaders, citing the spirit of Holy Week, has called for an end to mass incarceration in the United States. The ministry of Jesus Christ, they say, was about challenging the unjust systems that held marginalized communities in bondage. And they equate that struggle with the fight against the war on drugs, which not only costs billions of dollars, they say, but also results in the disproportionate incarceration of minorities.
“We are called upon to follow Jesus’s example in opposing the war on drugs, which has resulted in the United States becoming the world’s biggest jailer, with about 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners,” the Rev. Edwin Sanders, senior servant and founder of the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, Tenn., said in a statement.
The Christian leaders on Wednesday called on the federal government to repeal laws that criminalize low-level drug possession — policies that result in disparate incarceration rates for blacks and Hispanics, studies show. In their place, the federal government should expand drug treatment and other health approaches to drug use, the coalition members said.
The Christian leaders urged Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act. The measure, supported by the Obama administration, would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenders and apply more lenient crack cocaine sentencing policies. The House Judiciary Committee is weighing the bill, after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved it in January.
The recommendations come amid growing mainstream criticism of the U.S. criminal justice system. States spent $3.6 billion in 2010 alone enforcing marijuana possession laws, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union. The same study found that blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession that whites with similar usage rates. In areas with the most heightened detention disparities, blacks are 30 times more likely to be arrested.
“The policies of this failed war on drugs, which in reality is a war on people who happen to be poor, primarily black and brown, is a stain on the image of this society,” said the Rev. John E. Jackson, a member of Chicago’s Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference of progressive African-American faith leaders, during a teleconference on Wednesday with a half-dozen religious leaders.
Criticism of U.S. drug policies has only intensified since two states — Colorado and Washington — legalized recreational marijuana. The Justice Department has allowed the states to move ahead with their laws despite a federal ban on cannabis use. Attorney General Eric Holder said on Tuesday he was “cautiously optimistic” about how the two states are proceeding with their pot laws.
The Obama administration has taken steps to curtail the burgeoning, and costly, U.S. prison population — fueled to a great extent by low-level marijuana possession arrests. In August, Holder announced that the federal government would not automatically impose charges that lead to mandatory sentences on low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.
And just last week, the U.S. Sentencing Commission unanimously approved recommendations from Holder that would shorten federal prison sentences for most drug dealers. The proposals would reduce sentencing guidelines across drug types. Someone caught with 2.2 pounds of heroin, for example, would serve on average one year less under the guidelines, from 51 to 63 months instead of the current 63 to 78 months.
If approved, the commission estimates its proposed changes would affect about 70 percent of federal drug trafficking defendants. That, in turn, would reduce the federal prison population by about 6,550 inmates over five years. The commission’s recommendations go to Congress for a vote in May. If approved, they would become law by Nov. 1.
Despite some opposition to lowering federal drug sentences — notably from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee — the commission’s proposed amendment enjoys bipartisan backing and is expected to be approved, thanks in part to growing Republican support.
“We believe the greatest stimulus for the mass incarceration of our loved ones is the failed war on drugs that has spent billions and billions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of lives, for primarily a public health issue,” said the Rev. Michael McBride, director of urban strategies at Lifelines to Healing in Berkeley, Calif. “Mass incarceration is the civil rights movement of our generation, and the faith community is at the forefront.”
With wire services