reform

Untying the Hands of Justice

THE UNITED STATES has more than 2.3 million prisoners, a higher number than any other country. How did we become the world’s leading jailer? One of the main culprits: Mandatory sentences.

Visiting those in prison and giving Christmas gifts to children of incarcerated parents are only two steps toward fulfilling Jesus’ command to care for the “least of these” (Matthew 25). It’s time for the church to get serious about criminal sentencing reform—particularly, the reform of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which lock up so many people for so long with so little benefit to society.

The explosion in state and federal prison populations and costs began in the 1980s with the so-called war on drugs. Lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences passed by lawmakers are the primary weapon in that “war.” Judges have no choice but to apply these automatic, non-negotiable sentences of five, 10, or 20 years or even life in prison without parole. Whether the punishment actually fits the crime or the offender, protects the public, or leads to rehabilitation is irrelevant.

The results are unsurprising: irrational sentences, $80 billion annually in prison costs, and horrifically overcrowded prisons. States as varied as Georgia, New York, Delaware, South Carolina, California, and Michigan have confronted the reality of unsustainable prison budgets by repealing mandatory minimum sentences or creating “safety valve” exceptions that let judges go below the mandated punishment if the facts and circumstances warrant it. During this wave of reforms, crime has dropped to historic lows.

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French Jews Face Uncertain Future After Scandal

Rabbi Gilles Bernheim (left) “borrowed” the work of others. Photo courtesy RNS.

Amid a finance scandal that touched the heart of France’s Socialist government, a quieter drama played out this month as the country’s top rabbi resigned his post after admitting to plagiarism.

Rabbi Gilles Bernheim offered his apologies for “borrowing” the work of others and lying about his academic credentials, ending a leadership crisis that has rocked the country’s 600,000-strong Jewish community, the largest in Europe.

Now, as the search begins for a new grand rabbi, questions are mounting about which direction the religious leadership will take — notably whether it will continue Bernheim’s move toward a more “modern” and perhaps more inclusive French Judaism, or return to a more inward-looking faith.

 

Pope Francis Calls Out the Church

Pope Francis I. Photo courtesy Patheos.

Only a day into his papacy, and I’ve got to admit, Pope Francis has my attention. In an editorial piece on the Sojourners website today, Jim Wallis cited a surprising and very heartening quote from the new pontiff, especially for those looking in from the outside as non-Catholics. Here’s an excerpt from one of his first public addresses:

“We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church. It’s true that when you get out into the street, as happens to every man and woman, there can be accidents. However, if the church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it gets old. Between a church that suffers accidents in the street, and a church that’s sick because it’s self-referential, I have no doubts about preferring the former.”

 

Guns, Culture, and Sanity

I DON'T OWN any guns, and I've only fired them at inanimate objects, but I live in the country, so guns are a part of my life.

During deer season, the woods around our place sometimes sound like Baghdad circa 2006. We used to have a close neighbor who regularly fired a gun in his backyard, usually on Sunday afternoons—at what, we're not entirely sure. Our family has a three-legged dog that lost his right rear appendage to a gunshot wound. Our kids in Boy Scouts get gun safety training and rifle and shotgun shooting lessons in a program certified by the National Rifle Association.

So when the gun control debate heats up, as it has since the Sandy Hook School massacre, I come down with a serious case of mixed feelings. I think rural gun lovers are at least partly right when they say that urban gun control advocates look down on them as ignorant primitives. Many city people, and I'd dare say most urban liberals, don't understand the rural culture of hunting and shooting and can't be bothered to expend the moral energy that act of empathy would require. For me, that part of the gun control discussion pushes the same outrage buttons that go off when an economist says people in dying rural communities just need to move, or when someone else suggests eliminating all farm subsidies from the federal budget. Such comments betray the fact that the speakers neither know, nor care, about rural communities and rural culture.

On the other hand, fear of outsiders is also a part of rural culture. Groups like the NRA, and gun manufacturers themselves, have done a pretty good job of exploiting that flaw, to the point that some of my neighbors are convinced that they need assault weapons to defend themselves against some vague, unnamable "them." And my experience of rural life, which has all been in the South, confirms that this can apply doubly or triply to "outsiders" with a different skin color.

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Come With Me Into the Fields

BREAKTHROUGHS ON immigration reform will make life easier for some Latino immigrants, but in the sweltering, often-toxic fields where farm workers toil each summer from Maine to California, conditions can still be dehumanizing and dangerous. There is a silver lining, however. With the burgeoning growth of the nation's Latino population, there are more advocates than ever working to improve the plight of the men, women, and often children who do hard labor on our nation's farms.

With a mostly young, deeply committed staff, the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is doing solid grassroots work to make life better for workers in the state's tomato industry. With cooperation from 11 food retail and food service corporations, CIW has implemented the Campaign for Fair Food, which has brought modest wage increases, worker protections, and grievance procedures to farms that produce 90 percent of the state's tomato crop.

Using a worker-led administrative structure and significant public pressure, CIW has brought companies such as McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and KFC into its program that asks corporate partners to kick in an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes they buy. That premium is passed on to growers to increase worker pay.

Elbin Perez, 23, a farm worker from Guatemala, has been working in the U.S. for six years, sending part of his wages back home to his parents and five siblings. As a CIW member, Perez leads "worker-to-worker education programs." Those trainings educate workers about CIW's code of conduct, which growers have agreed to uphold. Reforms include use of time clocks, guaranteed minimum wage, and water and shade breaks.

Perez said prior to the implementation of CIW's reforms, he witnessed many hardships in the fields, including wage theft, unsafe conditions, and sexual harassment of women workers. Perez told Sojourners it has "made an enormous difference to be part of the coalition."

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'But Why?'

TODAY, Greg Bright, 56, sits on the cement porch of his yellow clapboard house in New Orleans' 7th Ward and rests his hand on the head of his yellow dog, Q. It is 2012, and he often finds himself musing over the notion of time—time past, time lost, time wasted. "It feels like a minute since I been out here," he says. It took some time to adjust to life on the outside, he admits, and once, on a dark rainy morning as he found himself biking seven miles in the rain to his miserable job working the line in a chicken plant in Mississippi, he felt real despair—just recognizing that he was 47 years old and had never owned a car. He tried hard to dismiss the sobering thought that, arrested at age 20 and doing 27 years of time, he'd been "seven more years in prison than I was on the streets." Sometimes, he says, "it's little things like that" that really threaten to drag him down into sorrow.

So he chose to do something that both keeps those wasted years fresh in his memory yet also mitigates the sense of powerlessness he sometimes feels. He helps to educate others in the hopes that his story will spur reforms. He is not an educated man—his formal schooling stopped in sixth grade—but he is one of dozens and dozens of ex-cons who form a vital link in the post-Katrina criminal justice reform efforts through various organizations such as Resurrection After Exoneration, a holistic reentry program for ex-offenders, and Innocence Project New Orleans. Greg tells his story to students, activists, politicians, church groups, friends, strangers—anybody with time to spare and an inclination to listen—doggedly putting a face on an abstract idea, injustice.

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PACs Gone Wild

JUST AFTER THE election, a New York Times editorial implored the president and Congress to "get to work fixing the current badly flawed, out-of-date campaign finance system." The Kansas City Star called it "painfully obvious" that the system needed change.

Those were after the 2008 and 2004 elections.

We all know how the cycle works: Every four years, politicians mount ever-more-expensive campaigns. After each election, the nation's papers call for reform. Meanwhile, business as usual—the business of the lobbyists, that is—continues in Washington.

So here's a proposal: Let's put an end to this cycle. Call it the "Reform in Four" campaign.

Step 1: Build a bigger army. We need to immediately broaden the coalition for reform—from environmentalists to the faith community to pro-reform Republicans, corporate leaders, and Tea Party members who are concerned about cronyism. The good news is that, in a July 2012 Gallup poll, 87 percent of Americans said that "reducing corruption in the federal government" should be a "very important" or "extremely important" priority for the next president. It ranked second, just below job creation (at 92 percent).

Step 2: Create a wave of Teddy Roosevelts. Reform needs champions; right now it doesn't have enough. Candidates in both parties will need to be recruited and supported to run against the Big Money system. Reformers are sometimes uncomfortable with this step, in part because they work for nonprofit organizations that are barred from getting involved in elections. But as the CEO of a national environmental group told me: "When I first came to Washington, 30 years ago, I didn't think that you had to get involved in the messy game of politics and elections to have an effect. Now it's clear to me that that's the only way. Not having a political edge is a killer. Reform groups don't have one."

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A Call to Conversion

AS LARRY WATSON arrived by charter bus at the Corrections Corporation of America in Nashville, Tenn., apprehension pulsed through his body. An ex-offender, Watson had been at prison facilities before, but never for this reason—and never willingly.

Watson had been incarcerated three different times—in 1978, 1983, and 1990—for distribution of drugs. The last time, he was sentenced to up-to-30 years in jail. He was released on Jan. 14, 1993, after serving 36 months.

Now he found himself on a very different path. Watson and 17 others, mostly ex-offenders, had trekked nearly 700 miles in May 2010 on a pilgrimage from Washington, D.C., to Nashville. As they pulled into the grandiose Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) headquarters, home to the largest private prison company in the United States, a swarm of security officials greeted them. Watson and his fellow sojourners became increasingly mindful of the spirit in which they journeyed.

Their plan was creatively simple: Purchase a share of stock in the Corrections Corporation of America, the behemoth corporation that owned the private prisons where some of the group had been incarcerated. Attend a CCA shareholders’ meeting. Then, as stockholders, tell their personal stories as a way of witnessing to the “spiritual crisis” occurring within the prison industry, while also building relationships with key CCA personnel.

In essence, using their experience from the inside, members of the group planned to tell CCA how to do its job better.

The Corrections Corporation of America board knew that Watson and his companions planned to attend the meeting. The board deployed the armed security guards to greet them. “They went with us step by step into the CCA building,” said Watson. On the way inside, he considered his physical surroundings. “It’s a very nice property. It looks like money.”

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Education and the Wealth Gap

 

Ask a random group of people, “How do we improve our public schools?” and you’re apt to get divergent, passionate answers. Christians, like other citizens, have different opinions on how to heal what’s hurting in our education system. What we can share is a belief that all children are truly precious in God’s sight and an understanding that public education is a key component of the common good—that a healthy school system has the potential to bring opportunity and uplift to children regardless of their economic status. Jan Resseger is the minister for public education and witness with the national Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ. She spoke with Sojourners associate editor Julie Polter in June.

Sojourners: Why is public education a commitment for the United Church of Christ?
Jan Resseger: The commitment to education is a long tradition for us. Our pilgrim forebears brought community schooling and higher education to the New England colonies—New England congregationalism is one of our denominational roots. Another root is the American Missionary Association (AMA), an abolitionist society that grew out of the defense committee for the Africans on the slave ship Amistad. The AMA founded schools for freed slaves as a path to citizenship across the South during and after the Civil War.

Several denominations came together as the UCC in 1957, and our general synods since then have taken stands on issues such as the protection of the First Amendment in public schools and supporting school desegregation through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. From 1958 to the present, we have spoken to institutional and structural racism and classism in schools. We also have addressed privatization, because we’ve been strong supporters for many, many years of public schools as key to the strength of our society and democracy.

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Beyond 'Superman'

I'VE BEEN INVOLVED in public education for more than 15 years—as an urban public school teacher, a researcher and policy analyst, a teacher trainer, a parent, and an advocate. I never dreamed I’d live to witness such raucous and juicy debates about how to improve our nation’s lowest-performing public schools. Throughout my career, public education garnered the occasional feel-good story about a phenomenal, mythical “inner city teacher” and, more often, the litany of stories about how urban and rural schools are in complete disarray.

But during the last few years—oh my! We’ve witnessed the onslaught of message-laden documentaries such as Waiting for “Superman” and The Lottery, which are celebrated by many and derided as teacher-bashing propaganda by others. The birth of the “education reform” movement has generated such groups as Democrats for Education Reform, Students for Education Reform, and Stand For Children. Again, lauded by many, these groups are vigorously criticized by others because of the way they push against policies, structures, and institutions in public education.

Regardless of what side of the education reform debate we may choose, most Americans agree on one thing: Public schools must improve. The academic achievement gap between wealthy white students and low-income students of color must be eliminated. It’s unconscionable that 50 percent of kids growing up in poverty drop out of high school. How do we allow a system to exist where poor children in the fourth grade are already performing three grade levels behind children in wealthier neighborhoods? What future do we anticipate poor and minority children will have with these academic outcomes?

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