Attorney General Eric Holder has made an effort in recent months to elevate key civil rights issues, especially those issues affecting our nation’s broken criminal justice system. One unexpected issue the Attorney General has chosen to highlight is the crucial problem of felon disenfranchisement. Amidst a backdrop of increasing bipartisan support for sentencing reform on Capitol Hill, increased knowledge about the racial disparities of mandatory minimum sentences, new questions about capital punishment and other significant developments in the areas of criminal justice and civil rights, the issue of felon disenfranchisement is another moral challenge of our time—and one gaining bipartisan momentum.
Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Smarter Sentencing Act by a bipartisan 13-5 vote, sending the bill to the Senate floor. The SSA, as the ACLU put it, is the most “significant piece of criminal justice reform to make it to the Senate floor in several years.” As Reform Jews committed to humane punishment and to addressing the root causes of crime, we join with other advocates of criminal justice reform in applauding the bill and encouraging the Senate to pass it.
The death penalty is back in the news with increasing frequency —and there is, in fact, a reason. See if you can piece this together:
- In Ohio, it took Dennis B. McGuire 25 excruciatingly painful minutes, from the time he was injected with fatal drugs to the time he was declared dead. The state used a new drug combination in its execution of Mr. McGuire, and received court approval to proceed despite defense attorneys asking for a delay, “in fear of the unused drug causing ‘air hunger,’ inflicting ‘terror and agony’ upon their client.”
- In Virginia, the House of Delegates passed a bill that would mandate death by electrocution in many cases, while Missouri and Wyoming have flirted with reintroducing the firing squad.
- The Supreme Court issued a last-minute, temporary stay of the execution of a Missouri inmate, Herbert Smulls, in the hours between President Obama’s State of the Union Address Tuesday evening and the man’s scheduled execution at 12:01 Wednesday morning, following the state’s refusal to disclose where they obtained a lethal-injection drug.
- The first four executions of 2014 are being carried out by Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Texas, respectively. Each is using a different lethal injection procedure.
Each year, many Reform Movement congregations observe Martin Luther King Day by participating in Shabbat Tzedek: Celebrate Civil Rights and Social Justice. This year, Martin Luther King Day falls on January 20, and Shabbat Tzedek falls on January 17 and 18. Shabbat Tzedek honors the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—and more broadly, honors the civil rights movement.
Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a full committee meeting to begin considering four criminal justice reform bills. While these bills are being considered separately, advocates of criminal justice reform hope that the Committee crafts a comprehensive, bipartisan bill that addresses a number of problems within our criminal justice system.
On November 30, 1993, President Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act into law, requiring a five day waiting period for the purchase of a handgun and after 1998, also requiring a background check for any firearm purchased from a federally licensed dealer. In honor of the Brady Bill’s 20th anniversary last week, here are 20 facts about the Brady Bill, the state of new gun violence prevention measures and what you can do to help curb gun violence in the United States: Read more…
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.