For far too many, America’s legal system is about punishment, not justice
On January 17th, I attended a Wilmington conference for African-American men called “Raising Kings.” In a nation that sends six times more blacks to prison than whites, the organizers of this annual gathering strive to “change the image and expectations of men and boys of color” by having frank, direct conversations about how to succeed in a society that often seems to stack the deck against them before they’re even born.
At the conference, I heard from attendees ranging from teenagers to seniors about issues that too many of them have already been forced to confront, from the impact of mass incarceration on African-American families to the challenge of finding employment upon reentry from prison.
The population of my home state of Delaware is 22 percent black — yet nearly 60 percent of the prison population is African-American. This disparity reflects a tragic pattern across the United States, where decades of “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” rhetoric have been matched by equally unsustainable and unjust public policies.
Decades of “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” rhetoric have been matched by equally unsustainable and unjust public policies.
Few have captured the urgency of reforming American criminal justice as effectively as a fellow Delawarean, Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is the author of Just Mercy, a book that chronicles his efforts founding and leading the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Long before sensible reforms to our criminal justice system seemed possible, Stevenson has been fighting to improve this broken system.
As Stevenson aptly writes, “the true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” When it comes to fairly distributing justice in America, Congress has long failed this test of character.
When it comes to fairly distributing justice in America, Congress has long failed this test of character.
Today, the Senate has a rare opportunity to right some of these wrongs. Last fall, the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which I serve, approved the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a bipartisan bill that:
- Reduces mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes that have proven unnecessarily punitive and costly, without improving public safety.
- Gives federal judges more discretion in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders, meaning judges will no longer be obligated to levy unduly harsh sentences if they believe a different sentence is more appropriate.
- Eliminates the federal “three-strikes” standard, which requires a mandatory life sentence for a third federal offense, regardless of what that offense was.
I commend Senators of both political parties who came together in the Judiciary Committee to write, debate, and pass this important bill.
It isn’t perfect, of course — I would like to see stronger provisions that combat the unnecessary use of solitary confinement and the shackling of juveniles in courtrooms.
But first, the full Senate must be willing to vote. We have a bill supported by Democrats and Republicans and a diverse coalition of faith, reform, and advocacy groups. We have a President who has acted to end solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, and who is ready and willing to sign a broader package of criminal justice reforms into law. Now it’s up to Congress.
“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”
In Leviticus 19, the Lord urges Moses, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”
Fifty percent of federal prison inmates have been convicted of drug crimes — over half of which are for low-level drug offenses — cutting them off from their families and making it more difficult to achieve meaningful employment. That is a perversion of justice.
American prisons house 10 times more individuals with mental illness than psychiatric hospitals do — that is a perversion of justice.
On average, black men receive sentences 20 percent longer than white men who commit similar crimes — that is a perversion of justice.
Regardless of our faith, we would be well-served to remember that it is our responsibility not just to punish those guilty of crimes, but also to judge our neighbors fairly and do our best to help them reenter society.
It is our responsibility not just to punish those guilty of crimes, but also to judge our neighbors fairly and do our best to help them reenter society.
Two years ago, under the leadership of Gov. Jack Markell, my home state of Delaware set a strong example by giving judges additional sentencing discretion, providing temporary employment opportunities with the state’s Department of Corrections, and returning drivers’ licenses to ex-offenders whose original crimes weren’t automobile-related.
Delaware State Rep. J.J. Johnson has introduced a bill in our state legislature that would further improve Delaware’s justice system by prohibiting the use of solitary confinement for individuals who are under 18 or mentally ill.
These are concrete successes that have already had a real impact. Congress should follow Delaware’s lead by passing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act with amendments that limit the use of solitary confinement and provide real limitations on juvenile shackling.
Last Friday, I had the honor of welcoming Congressman John Lewis to Delaware for a series of discussions on civil rights in America. His visit took place nearly 51 years to the day since he, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Hosea Williams led 600 peaceful demonstrators across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery.
Today, that very same Montgomery is the home of the Equal Justice Initiative led by Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights pioneer himself, who urges us to remember that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Far too many Americans — including many of the Delaware men I heard from in January — have grown up in a society in which they’re defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done.
We must fight for an America in which parents anywhere, of any race or religion, are empowered to raise kings and queens of their own, and where our justice system truly lives up to its name.