Ineffective. Unacceptable. Shameful.
Attorney General Eric Holder used these terms to describe the present policies of the U.S. criminal justice system during a speech on August 12, 2013. Holder announced new policies to reduce the use of mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, to increase the number of compassionate releases and to step up support for prevention, diversion and reentry programs. In the following month, Holder broadened the policy reforms to include pending cases where defendants have not been sentenced.
The Attorney General’s statements are a significant step toward systemically addressing the broken U.S. criminal justice system, particularly by rethinking the use of mandatory minimum sentences. While the reforms are highly welcomed, they are also long overdue.
More than four decades have gone by since President Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs. During this time, incarceration rose to unprecedented levels. Legislation such as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 imposed mandatory minimum sentences for cocaine distribution charges. It also created controversial sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, disproportionately affecting African-Americans despite the fact that drug use by African-Americans is comparable to that of any other demographic group.
In 1988, Congress passed a law that imposed a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for first-time drug offenders, including simple possession of cocaine. Now Holder’s reforms have the potential to reverse the tide and to prevent at least some of these unjust sentences from occurring in the future.
As followers of Christ, these policy changes bear great significance. There has been much to lament – for the 100,026 individuals currently held behind U.S. federal bars for drug offense charges, over half of whom are subject to a mandatory minimum sentence, including those with little or no criminal record.
These new policies undoubtedly give us cause for hope. Finally, serious conversations to reduce mandatory minimum sentences are taking place! What is more, politicians from both ends of the spectrum are recognizing the need to reform the broken criminal justice system.
Yet there is still significant work to be done. For instance, prosecutors must be held accountable for complying with the new reforms. Furthermore, to effect significant change, the U.S. Congress ultimately must address the harms of mandatory minimum sentences. There are two pieces of legislation that have the potential to address mandatory minimum sentences, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 (H.R. 1695/S. 619) and the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 (S. 1410). The former would provide judges more discretion in sentencing low-level, nonviolent drug offenders below mandatory minimum requirements. The latter also seeks to expand the safety valve while reducing mandatory minimum sentences and applying retroactively a law that reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.
Last but not least, we must ask ourselves whether it is enough to extend compassion for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses only. For decades, Mennonite Central Committee has actively addressed criminal justice through a restorative justice lens. This approach provides an alternative framework for thinking about harm and crime by asking a different set of questions about needs of victims, offenders and the community. This experience has shown that there is an effective and preferable alternative to a justice system that is solely punitive.
Hopefully one day, words like ineffective, unacceptable, and shameful will no longer be used to define our criminal justice system, but effective, just, and transformative instead.
Agnes Chen is the Legislative Assistant and Communications Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office.