Tough on crime

By Cherelle M. Dessus

MCC East Coast and the national Restorative Justice “Pipeline to Prison” learning tour visited this mural in Philadelphia, designed and painted by community members victimized by crime, victim advocates and inmates at Graterford Prison. (MCC Photo/Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz)

After swearing in Attorney General Jeff Sessions on February 9, President Donald Trump signed three executive orders designed to “reduce crime and restore public safety.” The orders aim to develop strategies such as new legislation and a task force to reduce violent crime, drug trafficking, and immigration.

The President has expressed his concern for the crime rate despite the fact that crime is actually decreasing. Throughout recent months, he has promised to be “tough on crime,” a phrase that African American communities especially know all too well.

Since the ending of the Jim Crow era, politicians have been praised for their use of the phrase. The “tough on crime” policies supposedly decreased drug use and crime, but tend to target people of color living in poverty. The prison population increased dramatically as a result, disproportionally representing African Americans.

The Trump administration also plans to crack down on the use of recreational drugs and to reverse the push against privatization of prisons. Privatizing prisons provides an incentive to make more arrests for financial benefit, while filling prisons with offenders of non-violent crimes. Drug offenses make up almost half of the current federal prison population. These efforts collectively work to build stereotypes toward people of color as dangerous criminals, because African Americans are targeted for drug arrests despite comparable drug use rates.

Instead of viewing drug addictions and trafficking through a criminal lens, we must examine the root problems. As former President Obama stated, “Drug addiction is a health problem, not a criminal problem.” We must review forms of sustainable treatment to address those dealing with drug addictions, and tackle the issue of poverty in African American communities, while also working to undo discriminatory policies.

It may seem tempting to overlook the systemic issues in the criminal justice system but the Bible calls us to seek justice and correct oppression (Isaiah 1:17). As Christians, we should pray for justice, seek to represent Christ, and take action by learning and advocating for criminal justice.

Mennonite Central Committee U.S. has been a strong supporter of criminal justice reform including the elimination of mandatory minimums, exploring alternatives to prison such as restorative justice, and educating the public with criminal justice learning tours and book studies.

God encourages us to provide for our brothers and sisters in need, to stand up for what is right, and to comfort those without peace (Matthew 25:35-40, Mark 12:30-31). He reminds us that there is no commandment greater than loving others as ourselves.

To learn more about the systemic issues within the criminal justice system, consider watching 13TH, a documentary by Ava DuVernay or reading The New Jim Crow, a book by Michelle Alexander.


By Cherelle M. Dessus

Cherelle M. Dessus recently took over the position held by Joshua Russell as the new full- time Legislative Assistant and Communications Coordinator at the MCC Washington Office. She will be writing regularly for the Wider Review column.