With New Sentencing Legislation Pending in Congress, Church Leaders Urge an End to Mandatory Minimums
Even as the clamor against mandatory minimum sentences grows louder, a House subcommittee is considering a bill that would impose harsh new mandatory minimums for a wide variety of nonviolent drug offenses. But in a sign of the growing opposition to draconian sentencing, legislators and leaders of mainstream religious denominations gathered for a Capitol Hill press conference Tuesday to denounce mandatory minimums in general and the new bill in particular, and to support another bill that would repeal federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
Mandatory minimum sentences largely date from the hysterical anti-drug politics of the 1980s, when legislators sought to outdo each other in being "tough on crime" by drafting more and more draconian legislation. Such sentences, which require offenders to serve a certain minimum amount of time, remove discretion in sentencing from judges shifting such power instead to prosecutors. With judges forbidden by law from deviating from such sentences, prosecutors effectively decide punishments by choosing which charges to bring.
The House Subcommittee on
Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security Thursday began hearings on H.R.
Opposition to the bill was loud and clear at the Tuesday press event organized by the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative (http://www.idpi.org), a group formed specifically to mobilize people of faith to promote drug policy reform. "I get invited to a lot of speaking engagements, but I'm only going to accept them if I can speak about mandatory minimums," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), author of a new bill, H.R. 5103, which would repeal mandatory minimums. "I want to make this a priority," she said. "Mandatory minimum sentences destroy lives. Politicians have built their careers on being tough on crime and tough on drugs, but mandatory minimum sentencing targets low level drug users -- victims -- not the drug dealers who should be sentenced to the time they deserve."
One victim of such laws is Hamedah Hasan, who is now serving a 26-year mandatory minimum sentence for a peripheral role in a drug distribution conspiracy. "Mandatory minimum sentences have been horrible for my family," said Hasan's daughter Kasaundra Lomax. "I've been taking care of my family since I was 12. It's not my job, but I don't have a choice. I would like to be in college, but I have to worry about taking care of my family," she said. "All they care about is punishing a person, and they give no thought to how this affects whole families. It's just not fair."
That's right, said Waters. "Many women have boyfriends, they have a conversation and they end up in a conspiracy," she said, urging the religious community to quit obsessing on issues like gay marriage, abortion, and whether women can serve as clergy. "Refocus your attention," Waters pleaded with church leaders, "get on the people's agenda. Mandatory minimum sentencing destroys lives. Instead we need to let judges be judges."
Waters' bill, known as the Justice in Sentencing Act, would do that. The bill systematically strips language creating mandatory minimum sentences from the Controlled Substances Act and the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act. It also mandates no federal prosecution of offenses under those acts for amounts of drugs less than those specified as minimums under the Controlled Substance Act, unless specifically authorized by the attorney general. For cocaine or cocaine base, the bill mandates that no federal prosecutions commence for amounts less than 500 grams without the attorney general's approval.
Church leaders and legislators at the press conference called for passage of the Waters bill and an end to mandatory minimums. "The most incredibly moral thing we can do is look at legislation that is supposed to be helping people, but is harming people," said Eliezer Valentin-Castanon, director of civil and human rights for the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. "As people of faith, how can we proclaim that our religious values allow us to put people in prison for such a long time?" he asked.
"This is the land of
the free and home of the brave," said the Rev. Michael T. Bell, pastor
The Rev. Julius Hope,
director of religious affairs for the National Association for the
of Colored People and a veteran of the 1954
Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the support of the religious community is critical. "The civil rights movement had the church behind it. When the church gets behind this we will prevail," he said.
And the churches are
beginning to come around. In addition to
addressing the Tuesday press conference, the
"The nation's leading religious organizations clearly recognize that mandatory sentencing laws are unjust and ineffective," said Charles Thomas, executive director of the national Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative. "No denominations are known to support mandatory minimum sentencing. Can you think of any other issue on which the moral choice is so clear? Congress must defeat Rep. Sensenbrenner's bill and pass Rep. Waters' bill. It's time to put on the brakes and turn toward justice and compassion."
To read the Sensenbrenner (H.R. 4547) and Waters (H.R. 5013) bills online, go to http://thomas.loc.gov and enter the bill number in the search box.
To read about religious denominations' positions on mandatory minimums and other drug policy issues, visit the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative web site at http://www.idpi.us online.