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.
In a dramatic shift in U.S. criminal justice policy, Attorney General Eric Holder has announced that the Justice Department will no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders.
Holder acknowledged what the Reform Movement has known for decades: “It’s clear…that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”
For the first time since 2006, there is a permanent director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the agency tasked with enforcing our nation’s gun laws. B. Todd Jones, U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, and the acting part-time director of the ATF, was confirmed by a vote of 53-42 yesterday evening. Read more…
On Monday, July 20th, our nation marked the first anniversary of the tragic shooting that left 12 people dead and 70 injured at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. The shooting, committed by James Holmes during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, was just one of many mass shootings that shocked the American public this year. Read more…
In the Book of Isaiah it states, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4). Instead of using swords to fight others, we should use the sword as a tool to reconnect with the land. A similar ideology should also be applied to the way that society deals with first-time youth offenders who commit minor offenses.
In last week’s Torah portion, Korach, we encounter a troubling text that describes the rebellion of Korach and his family’s demise. What makes us uneasy about this text is that Korach’s complaint against Moses is an understandable one: since everyone has inherent holiness, why is power concentrated with Moses (Numbers 16:3)? God punishes Korach for questioning the concentration of power by causing the earth to swallow him (16:32). This narrative leaves us with the question of whether our texts are teaching us to blindly follow our leaders and to quell our legitimate concerns about the use of power.