- Criminal Justice
Join Me to Lobby for Sentencing Reform
We are living under systems that seek to militarize law enforcement with weapons of war, systems coated in the nation’s stain of our original sin of slavery, and systems that seek to control and contain specific communities. Those communities are overwhelmingly black and brown. And. They. Matter.
My name is José Woss, and I’m the lead lobbyist at FCNL on incarceration and criminal justice. I’ve also grown up in communities that are over-policed and criminalized. I’ve been thrown on the hood of a car because the registration was in my mother’s name. Thankfully that and some random searches are the worst that I’ve seen in my life.
The tragedies that are rocking our nation are a symptom of a larger problem: systems of oppression and control that seek to subjugate and control communities of color. We are living under systems that seek to militarize law enforcement with weapons of war, systems coated in the nation’s stain of our original sin of slavery, and systems that seek to control and contain specific communities. Those communities are overwhelmingly black and brown. And. They. Matter.
One element of these systems is mass incarceration, which has criminalized black and brown communities, pushing more and more people into jail and prison cells. We're close to a breakthrough on efforts to change that system -- but we'll need to work hard in the rest of this year to make it happen.
Come to Washington in November
Already, sentencing reform legislation has strong bipartisan support. There's broad agreement that the system is broken, but members of Congress need to make passing this legislation a priority. The best way to get that to happen is if they hear, directly, from you.
The Problem of Mass Incarceration
We’re basically throwing away $30,000 - $45,000 to put someone in a cage.
We are the number one country for throwing people in prison. Today, we see approximately 2 million people in some form of incarceration either jail or prison. Almost 70 million Americans have a criminal record, and African-Americans are six times more likely to feel the weight of mass incarceration.
Mass incarceration is expensive. It takes up about one quarter of the whole Department of Justice budget. On average, incarceration costs $30,000 a year to hold just one person. In Connecticut and Illinois, the average costs more than $45,000.
Think about that for a second.
We’re basically throwing away $30,000 - $45,000 to put someone in a cage.
That money could be much better spent to fund poverty programs, education, job training and other solutions to actually deal with the root causes of the problems that lead people to wind up in prison in the first place.
This system is broken.
At FCNL, we look at this broken system and try to find the next step to move federal policy in the direction of the world we seek. Right now, we’re working to get Congress to pass legislation to start chipping away at the problem of mass incarceration by addressing mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
- In the Senate: Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123)
- In the House: Sentencing Reform Act (H.R. 3713) and the Recidivism Risk Reduction Act (H.R. 759).
The problems these bills address
What is a mandatory minimum sentence? When someone commits a crime involving drugs, even if the offense is nonviolent, that person is typically convicted and sentenced to a mandatory sentence of 5, 10, even 20 years. The judge who hears the case has very little discretion in setting the sentence. The law demands that, for x crime, a person must be sent to jail for at least y years.
I was a young man. I was convicted for drugs, but sentenced like a murderer.
A returning citizen once said to me: “I was a young man. I was convicted for drugs, but sentenced like a murderer.”
These mandatory minimum sentences have served as a hammer against communities. Every problem looks like a nail. These excessive sentences have put more and more people of color in prison or jails. The prison population has seen an approximate increase of 500% over the last 40 years.
I know some people here in DC that can’t stand to wait an extra ten minutes for the metro. Can you imagine having 10-15 years of your life effectively robbed from you?
Then imagine bearing the stigma that, after serving your sentence, many people will view you as a bad person, as a second-class citizen? Think about the limits on your job prospects and the ability to better yourself.
Now imagine the effects of that prison sentence on your children: the effects your child’s development, nurturing you aren’t able to offer, lost income, diminished opportunities, the permanent loss to your community and your family’s future. Mandatory minimums are the most damaging piece of mass incarceration.
There are solutions
The House and Senate bills would help with this part of the problem by reducing mandatory minimum sentences. They also help by expanding the safety valve – allowing judges to look at the whole person and the circumstances of the crime in determining how they should be sentenced. Not just seeing how long to lock up human beings based on a spread sheet.
Simply put, if these bills pass, it will mean lower prison sentences and fewer people sitting in prisons. These shorter sentences mean more birthdays, more holidays, more days working to create a better future for you and your family.
The bills also address the issue of helping people who have been in prison re-enter society successfully. Some prison facilities offer very little help in this area. These bills would improve and implement family and ethics training and more job training. As a result, they would improve people’s lives for when they return to society.
Where we’ve been, and progress we’ve made
But, you might ask, will these bills pass?
The glimmers of hope, progress, and change I’ve seen are potent!
Former judges and prosecutors in Congress are saying words like “rehabilitation,” saying things like “Well… maybe we should give judges more discretion, drug courts are a good idea, we should look at reforming mandatory minimums.” Even a few years ago, you wouldn’t have seen this kind of openness to rolling back mandatory sentencing laws.
We have come a very long way!
Why won’t those members cosponsor the bill? They say they’re not hearing enough from their constituents.
I don’t mean just in the eight months since these bills passed out of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. We’ve come a long way in the 20 years of work by civil rights leaders, advocates, and people like you who have given your time and efforts to begin to dismantle our system of mass incarceration.
The Senate bill, S. 2123, has more than 38 senators behind it, both Democrats and Republicans.
I’ve met with more offices than that who they would vote for the bill if it came to the floor. Senator Grassley from Iowa, one of the bill’s lead sponsors, says that more than 60 senators would vote “yes” for the bill on the floor.
Why won’t those members cosponsor the bill? They say they’re not hearing enough from their constituents. They’re afraid that their support might hurt them in a primary or election.
We’re still working to get a vote on S. 2123 in the Senate this year. But we’re also focusing more and more attention on the House, especially after Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he is planning to bring six criminal justice bills – including the two we are focusing on – for a vote in September.
Since FCNL invited more than 400 young people to lobby on sentencing reform in March, we’ve added 16 Representatives to the House reform bills: the Sentencing Reform Act (H.R. 3713), which has more than 70 cosponsors, and the Recidivism Risk Reduction Act (H.R. 759).
We know that many of these new cosponsors came after people in the FCNL network met with or contacted their representative. Sometimes all it takes is bringing the issue to the member’s attention, and as a constituent you are in the best place to do that.
What you can do
Things tend to move slowly on Capitol Hill. But we need YOU to remain engaged!!
We are incredibly close to passing these bills. Unfortunately politics has slowed the process down. But it won’t slow us down! I want to borrow a phrase from one of our partner organizations. We are called to help law makers act on what we know is in their hearts. That isn’t always easy in an election year.
That’s why F/friends across the country are so important in getting us across the finish line.
We need you to:
- Draft letters to the editor in your local newspapers. Legislators read those papers—I worked in the Senate here in Washington, and I can tell you they pay attention!
- Schedule a visit with your representative and senators bring up sentencing reform legislation and ask them to cosponsor it. Download FCNL's Advocacy Starter Kit for more information on how to schedule a visit.
- Join us in November for our Annual Meeting when we’ll focus on this issue as well!
- Make this an election issue! Your engagement will make a difference. The votes are there and these bills: S.2123 in the Senate and H.R.3713/759 can pass this year. See our guide for raising this issue in the campaign.
- Attend a town hall, campaign event, or a rally. Candidates will post these events on their campaign website usually ending in “.com” not “.gov.”
We’ve come a long way already. Congress is poised to move sentencing reform legislation forward. But it won’t happen if we let up our efforts. Please let me know if you have questions, and thank you for joining me in this work.
This article is adapted from José's talk on an FCNL national conference call.