1. Update
  2. Criminal Justice

Do Justice and Mercy: Time for Sentencing Reform

By José Santos Woss, November 11, 2016


We’re here to do justice and mercy for thousands of people. Each of you can do something about that. We know how to do this.

Remarks as prepared for delivery at FCNL's 2016 Annual Meeting.

My grandmother, Eudocia, grew up in poverty in the Dominican Republic. She had one shoe, and a pair for Sunday.

She was a young woman selling “fritura” or fried food on the side of the road to make a better life for herself and her family.

She decided to leave. An economic migrant. Because she knew that the society around her valued both her, despite her white skin, a woman of very low means and my mother a black woman, as less worthy of dignity and opportunity.

They left that island for a better life. A better world. After a brief period of separation, they met in New York City in 1967. My mother, Elvira, was 16, and didn’t speak a word of English.

This country gave her a chance. This country gave us a chance -- gave me a chance -- an opportunity for a better life.

This country is great.

Her struggle, her persistence, sometimes stubbornness, the tenacity of both my grandmother and my mother -- their faith in this country and most importantly their faith in God propels me forward when I'm in a dark place.

That same tenacity, that same persistence and power grounded in faith, is what I see today in this room.

What I see in this room is people who know what's right. People who know what we should be doing, where this country should be going, and what we shouldn’t be doing as a country. Grounded in faith. The light of God shining in each and every single person.

The strongest most radical acts of change were always sparked by kindness, love, and faith. You could not be at a better place, at a more critical time after this election.

We’re a pretty special community.

Between FCNL’s meetings in Congress, meetings by our coalition partners, the lobby visits of Friends and advocates around the country, we’ve had literally hundreds meetings with members of Congress and their staff. There is consensus. Our criminal justice system does not work. It is an affront to morality and decency.

We're taking people with complex problems like addiction, mental health, and poverty. We’re making them our collective problem, but the one solution is a jail cell. That's not right. An advocate from another organization said it best: "We're throwing children of God into cages."

We’ve had some setbacks, and politics have been a barrier. Yes. But the election is over, and it’s time to act. It’s pretty astounding that some of the strongest voices for these tough on crime era laws are now some of our top advocates in Congress.

Chairman Bob Goodlatte of the House Judiciary Committee and Chairman Chuck Grassley of the Senate Judiciary Committee are leading our bills.

There are two bills in the House, and a comprehensive one in the Senate.

The Sentencing Reform Act H.R. 3713 and the Recidivism Risk Reduction Act H.R.759. As well as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act S.2123.

A great deal of members of the House as well as prominent senators of both political parties agree that we need to fix our broken criminal justice system.

A system that says that 1 in 3 black men today should see a jail cell in their lifetime.

A system that costs us about $80 billion a year nationally -- three times what every state spends on educating kids.

Speaker Ryan is still meeting behind the scenes to get this through the House and onto the Senate floor where we know it will get 60 votes.

Governor Mike Pence said very directly during the Vice Presidential debate – on two occasions – that we need to pass criminal justice reform nationally, like he did in Indiana.

There’s been so much work put into this. Across several states and here in Congress. These bills have left committee and are ready to get to the floor for a vote. We’re so fortunate to have you with us at Annual Meeting to impress upon them how important it is to govern, act, and pass sentencing reform for the thousands sitting in federal prisons because of excessive sentences.

We’re here to do justice and mercy for thousands of people. Each of you can do something about that. We know how to do this.

I’ve been hearing from a lot of offices that they are only recently getting up to speed on this issue, and they’re not hearing from their constituents.

Luckily, we have a lot of experts in the room. Talk to each other.

Tell these offices that we need to create a more just criminal justice system by passing these carefully-crafted compromise, bipartisan pieces of legislation. To bring much-needed fairness to the families of so many nonviolent drug offenders.

Thank you again for working tirelessly to create this society that we seek and need. A society with equity and justice for all.

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José Santos Woss

  • Legislative Manager, Criminal Justice and Election Integrity

José Woss is the Legislative Manager for Criminal Justice and Election Integrity. He leads FCNL’s work on criminal justice reform, campaign finance reform (election integrity), and police militarization. He co-Chairs the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, an alliance of approximately 50 national faith groups advocating to end mass incarceration.