In recent years, the Department of Justice had begun to veer away from the harsh sentencing guidelines that were implemented in the 1980s and ’90s, especially those used to lock up low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. But Trump-appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions is on course to stop those changes.
In a new set of guidelines issued in May 2017, Sessions instructed prosecutors to pursue charges for the most serious offense possible, including charges that carried harsh sentences and mandatory minimums. Sessions described these guidelines as “moral and just” and praised them for producing “consistency.”
But humans are not uniform and consistent, and neither are their crimes. U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour believes mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines make sentencing far too easy. “I considered sentencing to be an art and not a science,” Coughenour told The Atlantic in 2016. “And it’s not a science. It’s a human being dealing with other human beings.”
The vast majority of incarcerated women have a history of trauma. According to the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, 75 percent of incarcerated women have suffered severe physical abuse by an intimate partner during adulthood, and 82 percent have endured serious physical or sexual abuse as children.
In the early hours of July 28, 2016, Bresha shot her father with his gun while he slept on the couch. Relatives say this action put an end to years of abuse, accounts that are corroborated with police and child services accounts. In 2011, Brandi Meadows, Bresha’s mother, filled a police report accusing her husband of constant emotional, financial, and physical abuse during 17 years of marriage. She told Fox News, “[Bresha is] my hero. She helped me — she helped all of us so we could have a better life.” According to her lawyer, Ian Friedman, Bresha’s brother and sister — witnesses to the shooting — will testify that Bresha acted in self-defense.
Author and reporter Maia Szalavitz says America is long overdue for new thinking on addiction, "both because our understanding of the neuroscience underlying addiction has changed and because so many existing treatments simply don’t work.” Our friends at Juvenile Justice Information Exchange sat down with Szalavitz to discuss her new book on the topic, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction. The following has been edited for length.
The solution to our awful prison problem is contained in the story of Gov. Edgar, Ratliff, and Celestial Ministries: Make a preferential option for those who are most impoverished in our midst. We might fund these efforts by taking money away from the corporations promoting criminal attacks on innocent people in other lands.
“We believe in the value, power, and potential of training to produce more effective, more capable, and better police officers,” the Ferguson Commission wrote. I believe in this, too. And I believe that investing in a better police force may yield a future where “liking the police” is no longer a privilege, but the norm.
“… We’ve lost two men who had an expansive, almost luxuriant vision of what it meant to be a man and lived out that vision through decades when it was much less safe to do so.”
Should the country do whatever it takes to protect the environment? The number of Republicans who say “yes” has decreased in the past 12 years.
LAST JUNE, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY sold all of its shares in the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison corporation in the country, and in G4S, the world’s largest private security firm. In doing so, Columbia became the first U.S. university to completely divest from the $74 billion prison industry.
Though the total amount Columbia divested, roughly $10 million, was not a major financial loss for either company, it was an important win for the students who had been pressuring the university to divest since 2013. “We work in the context of a bigger movement that seeks to break down the notion that prisons and police can solve our problems,” said Asha Rosa, a student organizer with Columbia Prison Divest, part of Students Against Mass Incarceration at the university. “We aim to create a world where people understand that investing in something like a prison is a socially toxic investment.”
Other universities and nonprofits followed suit: In December 2015, the California Endowment—a private, statewide foundation that focuses on health and justice for all Californians—announced it will no longer make direct investments in companies profiting from for-profit prisons, jails, and detention centers. A few weeks later, the University of California divested $25 million. And similar student-led divestment campaigns are underway at universities around the country, including UC Berkeley, Brown, Cornell, and the City University of New York.
For many organizations, the decision to divest from the prison industry is rooted in the organization’s own mission. Divesting is about not wanting to invest “in anything that hurts the people we are trying to support,” explained Maria Jobin-Leeds, a board member of the Schott Foundation and the Access Strategies Fund, two foundations committed to improving the lives of underserved communities, including communities of color. And given the disproportionate impact that mass incarceration has on people of color—in a 2015 speech, President Obama cited a “growing body of research” that shows people of color are more likely than whites to be arrested and more likely to be sentenced for similar crimes—both foundations decided to divest. “Companies that profit from prisons make money off the poorest and are supported by a deeply racist system,” said Jobin-Leeds. “We do not want to make money off this system.”
Profiteers and private prisons
But despite this conviction that divesting was the right move, Jobin-Leeds and her fellow board members realized it wasn’t easy to determine which investments were connected to the prison industry. One reason this was difficult was because of the overall lack of transparency within the prison industry. So while an investor could reasonably deduce that the Corrections Corporation of America manages prisons, she wouldn’t necessarily know that the CCA—like many private prison management companies—has a financial incentive to keep more people in prisons. Which it does: According to a 2013 report, 65 percent of private prison contracts with state prisons regularly stipulate occupancy quotas requiring the state to make payments for empty cells—a de-facto “low-crime tax.”
On Oct. 27, 1994 — 21 years ago today — the U.S. Department of Justice reported that the United States’ prison population had reached over 1 million people. By comparison, that’s the same size as San Jose, Calif.— the tenth biggest city in the US.
Today, the United States’ prison population is over 1.5 million — the size of Philadelphia, Pa., our nation’s fifth largest city.
Yet the size of our prison population — the largest in the world — is only part of the problem. Communities of color and poorer communities are disproportionally sentenced to prison — the result of systemic injustices including income inequality, school-to-prison pipelines, and racial profiling.
We mark many positive anniversaries here at Sojourners, but the work of justice also necessitates recognizing ongoing abuses of human dignity over time. So today, on the grim anniversary of 1 million people housed in our prison system, we choose to remember them and all those still behind bars. Here are ten articles we’re re-reading today about mass incarceration — and how to end it.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM in the United States is gaining momentum with each graphic video showing fatal police abuse. In the aftermath of the many deaths of unarmed black men and women and the city-wide protests that erupted in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland, it is not surprising that presidential hopefuls are making bold public statements about the need to change a system that is profoundly unjust, overly punitive, and excessively costly to run.
At the other end of the spectrum, away from TV cameras and political wrangling, activists such as Tara Libert and Kelli Taylor, co-founders of the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, are dealing with decades of draconian anti-crime policies that have resulted in mass incarceration rates marked by racial disparities that have had a devastating impact on families and communities.
The numbers speak for themselves. Although the United States makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has nearly 25 percent of its prison population. According to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization working to reform the U.S. criminal justice system, more than 2.2 million Americans are now locked up in prisons and jails across the country—a 500-percent increase over the past 30 years. Furthermore, those who are incarcerated come largely from the most disadvantaged segments of the population.
It’s no secret that the prison population in the United States has exploded in recent decades. We incarcerate our citizens at higher rates than any other developed nation. The federal prison population has increased by almost 790 percent since 1980. The number of children with one or more incarcerated parents has increased at an astonishing rate of 80 percent since 1991.
The mass incarceration of mostly Black and Latino men and women has moral implications in two ways. First, our current “tough-on-crime” approach to criminal justice has cost taxpayers a substantial amount with little effect on crime rates. These tax dollars could be spent instead on education, mental health, or drug rehabilitation. The way we spend public money reflects our public values. (Sound familiar?)
In addition, there are far-reaching moral implications of the act of naming someone “criminal." This label is inhumane, unjust, and unholy.
The “criminal” label has devastating effects on quality of life and equality of opportunity for many individuals. It is nearly impossible to shake. Most federal education grants are not available to someone with a criminal background. In many cities, access to subsidized or public housing is banned based on arrests or incarceration. Many states ban those with criminal backgrounds from food stamp eligibility. Being forced tocheck the box on an employment application indicating a past felony conviction essentially lands that application in the trash. The Sentencing Project estimates a total of 5.85 million people have been banned from voting because of a past conviction.
But Christians have a unique, biblically-based perspective on labels. In Christ, “sinners” become “beloved ones." The excluded, hated, and oppressed become included, wanted, and loved.
One time I took a group of people in the drug rehab program to the local zoo. Most of our group had been to prison – some for years. Most were felons. Most of the women had been prostitutes as well as addicts. Most of them had been homeless, had lengthy criminal records and had, as a group, used virtually every drug — heroin, meth, crack cocaine — and had used every deception, scam, or theft to acquire their drugs. In short, they had been desperate in ways and to a degree most of us could never imagine. If you think a hungry man will commit extreme acts for food to keep from starving, an addict will commit acts a hundred times more extreme. There are few acts an addict will not do.
And yet, few of these former addicts had ever been to a zoo.
One of these people, a woman in her mid-40s, couldn’t contain her excitement as we walked into sight of the resident animals. She shrieked and ran from exhibit to exhibit — until she saw the elephants. We happened to catch the trainer as he was giving a little question-and-answer time. This woman had endless, little kid-type questions about how elephants ate, slept, how they lived, and where they came from.
Before selling illegal drugs, Dejarion Echols worked several years for a youth correctional agency and a psychiatric residential-treatment facility for teenagers. He decided to pursue a college education but couldn’t afford to be a full-time student. Desperate to make money, the unemployed, 23-year-old, engaged father of two sold crack cocaine for six months in 2004.
Any chance Dejarion had for a meaningful, productive life quickly ended. On a tip, police searched his home, found 44 grams of crack cocaine, $5,700, and an unloaded rifle. After pleading guilty, Dejarion received two mandatory 10-year sentences: one for the drugs, the other for the gun.
Dejarion admits he sold drugs. He denies the gun had been used in illegal-drug activity.
The presiding federal judge, Walter S. Smith, expressed frustration at having to impose such a sentence. “This is one of those situations where I’d like to see a congressman sitting before me,” he said, explaining that he was powerless to reduce it because of federal mandatory-minimum sentencing law.
Enacted by Congress decades ago, mandatory-minimum sentences have dramatically affected the federal criminal-justice system. Since 1980, the federal prison population has increased 800 percent , largely due to drug-related mandatory-minimum sentences. The federal system is the largest in the United States holding 217,000 prisoners, half of whom are incarcerated for a drug offense. Fewer than 8 percent of federal prisoners are incarcerated for a violent crime.
I recently watched Eugene Jarecki’s remarkable documentary, The House I Live In, which is about the American ‘war on drugs’ and the burgeoning prison population it engendered and continues to engender.
Rarely do I find myself murmuring and tsk-tsking during a movie, but this one was highly affecting — an intimate look at how history, racism, economics, and politics have created a system that no one is proud of and no one really likes. Even the cops and prison guards who claim to love their jobs express unease with the human suffering and unbalanced scales of justice that lead to it.
One particular story has stayed with me.
A man named Kevin Ott was found in possession of a small envelope of meth; prior to that he’d been arrested twice, again for possessing small amounts of illegal drugs (meth and marijuana).
He’s been in prison for seventeen years. And he will be there until he dies: Ott is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Because he was a three-time offender, his state’s mandatory sentencing laws required that he be put away for life.
As we prepare for the coming of Christ, the third Sunday of advent is celebrated in joy. As followers of Christ, it is reasonable to be exuberant about the birth of our Savior. The amount of happiness that can seep from the soul in response to a virgin birth, a perfect baby boy, and an adorable scene of livestock and shepherds befriending God’s family is immeasurable. Christmas music, Christmas decorations, and yes, even Christmas presents add to the joy and never fail to put a smile on my face.
This past weekend, as I tried to reflect on what it means to be joyful in Christ, my heart was temporarily hardened as I attended a Reentry Arts & Information Fair for returning citizens. I helped host a table for Becoming Church and their Why We Can’t Wait initiative.
I live in community. What constitutes living in community means different things depending on whom you're talking to. To my 80-year-old grandmother it means that I have joined a cult. In reality, I live with my 10 fellow interns.
Together, we are all learning what it means to live and function as a cohort, how to pour the love of Christ into one another, and how to borrow strength from friends when we need it most. This includes sharing a home, sharing a budget, and sharing the last bit of ice cream that is left in the freezer.
A few nights ago during dinner sharp demands bounced from person to person. Many of our simple requests were stated as demands. Of course, when feeding 10 hungry people there is understandably a bit of an urgency to get food. But, there were no pleases and very few thank-yous.
On Oct. 11, I spent the morning under the front wheel of a bus filled with shackled immigrants. I joined this action with other community members to stop the two Homeland Security buses (operated by private contractor Wackenhut) from making it to the Operation Streamline proceedings at the Tucson federal courthouse. The buses were held and the front gate of the courthouse blocked for more than four hours, and Operation Streamline was ultimately cancelled for the day.
As my arms were locked around the wheels of the bus, I felt baptized into a deeper spirit of solidarity than I have ever known. Every one of the more than 70 immigrants on board those buses was shackled around their wrists and ankles. They were treated as if they were the biggest threats imaginable to our national security. During the action, the immigrants on the buses lifted their chains up to be seen through the darkened windows, and some of them put their palms together in front of their faces in a gesture of prayer and recognition of the meaning of the action. Other protestors at the scene had made signs in Spanish to communicate with the immigrants, with messages of: "Your struggle is our struggle;" "We are here defending your rights;" "You are not alone;" "We are with you, keep fighting;" "To desire a better life is not a crime."