Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) are often seen as ideological opposites, but last week Senator Leahy, the Senate’s most senior member, invited Kentucky’s junior senator to be a witness at a hearing of Leahy’s Judiciary Committee. The two are teaming up to co-sponsor the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, designed to address the scourge of mandatory minimum sentencing. The topic is gaining increased bipartisan support, and a companion measure has been introduced by similar ideological opposites, Reps. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Bobby Scott (D-VA), in the House of Representatives. Could now be the time for sentencing reform?
What are mandatory minimum laws and what’s wrong with them?
A mandatory minimum sentencing law forces judges to hand down fixed sentences, without the possibility of parole, to those convicted of particular crimes. In these cases, prosecutors, rather than judges, have discretion over sentencing. Today, there are almost 200 federal mandatory minimum laws on the books, the vast majority of which are related to drug crimes.
Here’s the problem: While race-neutral on their face, in practice federal drug sentencing mandatory minimum laws are highly racially discriminatory. In the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, Congress established the harshest-ever penalties for low-level drug offenses. It also created separate penalty structures and mandatory minimum sentences for two pharmacologically identical drugs, crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Under the Act, powder cocaine possession became a misdemeanor punishable by only up to a single year in prison, while crack cocaine possession triggered a minimum sentence of five years. The majority of crack cocaine users are African American, while the majority of powder cocaine users are white. Thus, mandatory minimum sentencing laws have the practical effect of incarcerating Black Americans for up to 100 times longer than non-Black Americans for possession of a pharmacologically identical substance.
Racial disparities in the criminal justice system are wide-spread enough without the existence of such discriminatory and arbitrary policies. Sentencing disparities further perpetuate injustice. In its 1999 resolution on Race and the Criminal Justice System, the Union for Reform Judaism condemned this inequality, calling for members of Congress to “support legislation to end crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentencing disparities.” The Union for Reform Judaism decried the growing evidence that race and poverty play a role in determining who gets arrested, who gets a fair trial, and how those convicted are sentenced… [which’] undercut[s] fairness and justice [and] harm the credibility and efforts of those agencies and personnel even as they erode respect for law and justice in America more generally.”
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws also restrict the ability of judges to exercise discretion in handing down sentences from the bench, instead giving much of the power to dictate sentences to prosecutors. Those who are being judged deserve to be judged on the basis of their own case and by a judge. Mandatory minimum sentencing policies contribute to prison overcrowding and inflate budgets for the criminal justice system. Excessive criminal punishment violates our moral imperative to focus on rehabilitation and not retribution. The Union for Reform Judaism’s 1968 Resolution on Crime states that, “rather than inflicting increasingly harsh punishment and curtailing civil liberties, we should treat the causes of crime and disorder and reject proposals which ignore those causes by emphasis upon vengeful or unconstitutional means.” As the Torah states, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). Mandatory minimums are neither , nor are they moral or equitable punishments.
The movement to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws has new legs. There is bipartisan support for such reform, including the Paul-Leahy and Massie-Scott bills. Additionally, the administration is clearly prioritizing the issue as well. In the past week, Attorney General Eric Holder has announced a new effort to “curtail severe penalties for low-level federal drug offenses,” which comes on top of other policy shifts over the summer designed to ease prison overcrowding and rectify equity issues within the justice system.
For more information, visit our Criminal Justice issue page.
Chag sameach! I hope you’re enjoying Sukkot as the Fall parade of Jewish holidays continues. Under the expert leadership of Michael Namath, we built our sukkah on the RAC’s front lawn. We’re looking forward to welcoming friends of the RAC, former staff and interns to join us for lunch in the sukkah on Tuesday. If you’re in DC, come by (and RSVP here by Monday so we can provide enough food for all).
Last Tuesday, we held our Faiths Calling day in support of ENDA, spearheaded by Rachel Laser. Scores of other faith groups participated in this effort to get the Senate to vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and ensure that under federal law no one can be fired, refused hiring or promotion, or demoted based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. You can see the statement from faith leaders here. The lines for the call-in campaign are still open - take a second to dial in if you haven’t already!
We have spent the last month commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Movement. Rachel Laser, the RAC’s deputy director, attended the March with her childhood friend, Natalie Bullock-Brown. Read on for Rachel’s reflection on the day, and check out Natalie’s post here!
As the 50th anniversary celebration of the “I Have a Dream” speech approached, I seemed doomed not to be able to acknowledge it as fully as I would have liked. I had fond memories of bussing from Chicago to scorching hot Washington, D.C. with my mother to participate in the 20th anniversary celebration as a 14-year-old girl. This time, the celebration’s end-of-the-summer timing felt inconvenient to me as a parent. There was confusion surrounding the multiple events scheduled within that week, and the celebration was competing with multiple current social justice battles occupying my attention at work.
Everything changed when my school friend Natalie Bullock Brown told me that she was coming from North Carolina for the celebration with her two young kids. She accepted my invitation to stay at our house.
We have spent the last month commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Movement. Natalie Bullock-Brown attended the March with her childhood friend, Rachel Laser (the RAC’s Deputy Director). Read on for Natalie’s reflection on the day, and check out Rachel Laser’s post here!
In our current pundit-driven media culture, where division is promoted to tear apart the bonds that hold people together, it’s easy to become cynical and begin to believe in the idea that if we look, think or believe differently from each other, we must be enemies. George Zimmerman’s merciless hunting down of Trayvon Martin is a good example of this. And certainly, there are factions in our society – who often self identify as “Tea Partiers” or “Republicans” – who not only hope that we will demonize difference, but purposefully play upon our fear of the “other” in order to create, and even deepen, the wedge.
Yesterday, Israel’s Supreme Court struck down the Third Amendment to the Law for the Prevention of Infiltration. This amendment, originally passed in January 2012, had allowed the government to detain asylum seekers for up to three years without charges. This is a momentous decision, which will result in hundreds of men, women and children being moved out of detention centers. Their release, however, will not be immediate, as the court decision allowed the Interior Ministry 90 days to examine inmates’ statuses.
More than 50,000 asylum seekers have entered Israel since 2006. Many of these asylum seekers have fled from conflict zones in Africa, including Eritrea and Darfur where political repression and civil strife are prominent.
“And God created humans in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them.” – Genesis 1:27
For generations, the Reform Movement has been committed to securing civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals under the belief that all people are created in the image of God, b’tzelem Elohim. And we have never had a better chance of securing workplace protections for the LGBT community! Workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, characteristics which have nothing to do with job performance, denies members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community the full set of civil rights that comes with the ability to earn a living, provide for their families and contribute to society. All of us are diminished when individuals are prevented from reaching their full potential and prohibited from contributing the full measure of their talent and ability to society. Therefore, as people of faith, we must reaffirm our support for the LGBT community and make it our sacred duty to demand the passage of critical legislation like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (S. 815/H.R. 1755).
In April 2009, I was standing in Auschwitz Birkenau at the top of the steps which led to the changing room and then to the gas chambers and crematoria. Scholars estimate that several hundred thousand people, mostly Jews, were gassed there. Standing with me at that moment was Rabbi Lazlo (Larry) Berkowitz, himself a survivor of Auschwitz. Rabbi Berkowitz, a graduate of HUC-JIR, is the founding rabbi and rabbi emeritus of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia.
While we were standing at these steps, the steps from which people went down to remove their clothes prior to gassing, Larry said the following: “This is the place. This is the place where my mother and my younger brother and sister died. This is the step on which my mother saw her last bit of daylight or her last view of the moon and stars.”