A broad coalition of Christian leaders have taken the occasion of the holiest day on the Christian calendar to release an Easter statement calling for the end of the war on drugs and mass incarceration. They said they chose the Easter season to release their statement because of the spirit of the Resurrection, which Easter commemorates and celebrates.
It also calls for the elimination of policies that result in racially disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates and that that unjustly exclude people with a record of arrest or conviction from key rights and opportunities.
The United States is the world leader in incarceration, accounting for 25% of the global prison population while only making up 5% of the planet's population. In state prisons, drug offenders typically make up 20-30% of all prisoners, although that proportion has begun declining as nearly half the states have undertaken sentencing reforms in recent years.
But while state prison population numbers have begun a slight decline, the federal prison population continues to increase, driven in large part by the war on drugs. As of this month, there were more than 216,000 federal prisoners, with just more than half (50.1%) doing time for drug crimes, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.
"The cross that faith leaders are imploring others to take up is this unjust and immoral war on drugs and mass incarceration of the poor. In particular, poor black and brown young adults whose futures are being ruined at the most critical point in their lives," said Reverend John E. Jackson of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference.
"We are guided by our religious principles to serve those in need and give voice to those who have been marginalized and stigmatized by unjust policies. We cannot sit silently while a misguided war is waged on entire communities, ostensibly under the guise of combating the very real harms of drug abuse. The war on drugs has become a costly, ineffective and unjust failure," says Reverend Edwin Sanders, who is a Board Member of the Drug Policy Alliance and the Senior Servant for the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
"Resurrection reality commissions and commands us to change these policies, laws and systems that rob whole communities of their most precious resource, their young. These are the ones Jesus faced betrayal, denial and desertion for. These are the ones Jesus gave up everything for. These are the issues Jesus was raised from a 3 day grave to speak truth to power to through our voices, through our crying loud and sparing not and through our organized efforts," added Jackson.
The story of the prodigal son is appropriate to ponder, said Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, Founder and Executive Director of The Ordinary Peoples Society, in Dothan, Alabama, himself a former drug war prisoner.
"The story of the prodigal son says he went out and lived a riotous life, like somebody who committed a crime or was on drugs or got incarcerated," said Glasgow. "The father of the prodigal son embraced him with open arms, but as a society, we don't do that. We incarcerate instead of trying to treat or restore. His father gave him shoes on his feet and a coat of many colors. These are things we're not doing when it comes to mass incarceration and the war on drugs."
"After they gave us civil rights, they came along with the drug war and took our voting rights back," he said, referring to the hundreds of thousands who have had voted rights restricted or denied after being convicted of drug offenses.
There are concrete steps to take, said several speakers.
"We want to repeal the laws that criminalize drug possession and replace them with effective approaches, and put an end to any policy that unjustly excludes people because they have a previous criminal conviction," said the Rev Michael McBride, Director of Urban Strategies, Lifelines to Healing, Berkeley, California.
"We are fighting a righteous fight and standing in solidarity in the Holy Week to call for an end to the war on drugs and mass incarceration," McBride added. "We are organizing hundreds of faith congregations across the country to build a faith and moral movement to address and redress these unjust policies. Holy Week reminds us that death does not have a final say, but that God is able to bring redemption for the worst things that happen in our lives. Mass incarceration is the civil rights issue of our generation, and the faith community is in the forefront."
"For those of us who follow Jesus, this is the time to receive his grace, but also to receive his calling," said Bill Mefford, director of Civil and Human Rights for the United Methodist Church, which has been at the forefront of the faith community's challenge to the drug war. "It is time to proclaim relief for the captives and freedom for the oppressed. Unfortunately, because we are the world's leader in incarceration, we don't have to look far," he noted.
Mefford is the chairman of an interfaith coalition working on Capitol Hill to reform the criminal justice system. It represents 35 faith organizations with millions of members.
"There are steps we can take to rescue ourselves from our own captivity," Medford continued. "We can pass the Smarter Sentencing Act as an incremental step toward justice reform that will address costly overcrowding at the Bureau of Prisons by cutting in half mandatory minimum sentences for low level drug offenses."
The Smarter Sentencing Act has passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and awaits a Senate floor vote. It has yet to move in the GOP-controlled House.
As Holy Week looms, it is indeed appropriate to ask that rhetorical question. When it comes to dealing with drug use and the drug trade, what would Jesus do?