Seeking Justice and Mercy in Sentencing Reform

Third Way Wider ViewFebruary 14, 2014

On January 30, 2014, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill containing much-needed reforms, but also some harmful changes, to the U.S. criminal justice system. In a 13-5 vote, members across the political spectrum supported the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410), a bill introduced by Senators Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lee (R-Utah).

The passing of this bill marks a significant step in overturning misguided and ineffective mandatory minimum drug sentences. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which introduced many of these penalties, was largely enacted to deter drug trafficking and distribution. But, instead of concentrating efforts on large criminal organizations, the war on drugs has focused on individuals operating at the lowest levels, such as street sellers and users. These drug offenders do not deserve overly harsh sentences. Instead, they require meaningful opportunities to amend the harm done to the society and to themselves.

As followers of Christ, we are called to approach wrongdoing through the lens of justice and mercy.

The Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce the lengths of mandatory minimum drug sentences by half and give judges discretion to impose sentences below the minimum requirements. Furthermore, the bill would address racial disparities in the criminal justice system by retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) of 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The sentencing disparity between the two forms of cocaine has long disproportionately affected communities of color, despite similar levels of drug usage in white communities. Through the passage of this bill, it is estimated that 8,800 individuals currently serving pre-FSA crack cocaine sentences would be able to return to court and gain fairer sentences.

Unfortunately, the Senate Judiciary Committee also approved three amendments to the bill that would create twelve new mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of domestic violence, sexual assault and terrorist crimes. Supporters of these mandatory minimums believe that these laws are in the best interests of victims and national security.

However, it is unclear that these provisions would actually serve the best interests of victims. When the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (S.47) was moving forward in 2013, the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women opposed the inclusion of mandatory minimum provisions. It is argued that these mandatory minimums are counterproductive and may further jeopardize the safety of victims. From a restorative justice perspective, these rigid, automatic sentences do not tend to the unique needs and priorities of either victims or offenders.

As followers of Christ, we are called to approach wrongdoing through the lens of justice and mercy. From drug possession to sexual assault, the “one-size-fits-all” approach of mandatory minimum sentences does not serve justice to all the complexities involved in a harm or crime. It is time to call on Congress to remove all mandatory minimum sentences, to render justice where it is due but also compassion where it is needed.

To learn about restorative justice frameworks and specific Mennonite Central Committee programs, visit here.

Posted: 2/14/2014 7:00:00 AM

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