The call for shalom: Reforming the U.S. criminal justice system

by Agnes Chen

Fifty years have passed since the civil rights movement shook the conscience of people of privilege and power to see the Jim Crow laws for what they truly were: a tool to continue the oppression of communities of color, even after slavery was abolished and declared unconstitutional.

Yet the struggle for justice, equality, and peace across people groups continues. As the U.S. woke up to the injustice it created and maintained through the Jim Crow system, communities of color and low-income communities have found themselves trapped in another system that is driven by profit and sustained by a massive web of punitive laws, discrimination and violence–a system that has been termed “mass incarceration.”

The rise of U.S. mass incarceration

With more than 2.4 million people in prisons, local jails, and juvenile and immigration facilities, the U.S. has become the world’s leader in incarceration rates. How did this happen?

One significant factor is the failed “war on drugs,” initiated and supported by U.S. lawmakers for the past four decades. This policy, which has cost an estimated $1 trillion, attempted to deter drug trafficking by initiating militarized drug raids domestically and abroad, and imposing “tough on crime” policies, such as mandatory minimums for drug offense sentences. In addition, “three strikes” laws in states throughout the country have led to much longer prison sentences.

Although the war on drugs has had a negligible effect on the use of illegal drugs, it has resulted in the incarceration of many individuals–including many who are not high-level drug kingpins, but low-level dealers and addicts.

While the U.S. criminal justice system has the potential to affect anybody, in reality the system impacts African-Americans and Latinos far more than whites. One reason for this disparity is the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a law which created mandatory minimums for drug offenses as well as a sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine of 100 to 1.

Drug raids for crack cocaine have been typically conducted in poor, urban neighborhoods and communities of color. As a result 72 percent of those convicted for federal drug offenses are African-American or Latino, despite the fact that the two groups comprise only 25 percent of the population and are no more likely to use illegal drugs than whites.

The militarization of law enforcement–such as “stop and frisk” rules, no-knock warrants and home seizures led by SWAT teams–have further exacerbated the disproportionate impact of the war on drugs on communities of color and low-income communities.

The “collateral consequences” of incarceration carry on upon prisoners’ release. Returning residents often find themselves unable to access housing, employment, education, and public benefits, as well as voting and jury services. Two-thirds of those released from prison are rearrested within three years.

A restorative approach

In the Gospels, Jesus constantly challenges his followers to seek a fuller understanding of shalom, right relationship with God and one another. Jesus’ stories and life showed his commitment to justice for those who have been wronged or shunned by the larger society. He also showed deep compassion for both the sinner (offender) and the sinned against (victim).

Taking God’s compassionate justice as a framework, restorative justice enables all parties, as much as possible, to receive what they need in the aftermath of a wrong or crime: agency, restitution, accountability, forgiveness, community support and transformed relationships.

Policy recommendations

Many Mennonites have led the rediscovery of restorative justice in communities across the country. As restorative justice gains attention in local communities, public policy on criminal justice must parallel the momentum.

Congress should pass laws that would create space for restorative justice to work in communities. This would include, but is not limited to, laws to end punitive sentencing policies, support community policing, and fund reentry and restorative justice programs.

As this issue goes to press, there are several bills pending in Congress that would make the U.S. criminal justice system more restorative:

  • The Smarter Sentencing Act would cut mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses in half, increase the ability for judges to sentence a person below the minimum requirement, and make retroactive a law that reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. At the time of writing, the bill has passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee and needs to be brought to the Senate floor for a vote.
  • The Youth PROMISE Act would fund and support communities by gathering law enforcement and community stakeholders to assess and formulate what they need to support youth in their communities.
  • The REDEEM Act would allow low-level, nonviolent criminal records to be sealed or even removed for juveniles, bans the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, encourages states to raise the age of criminal responsibility to age 18, and removes lifetime bans to federal assistance programs for low-level drug offenders.
  • The Second Chance Reauthorization Act, originally passed in 2008, would provide much-needed grants for state and local reentry programs.

Conclusion

The current criminal justice system is broken and reflects our society’s fundamental fear and lack of care for the marginalized. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, argues, “the core challenge to ending mass incarceration, is dispelling the myth that some of us are not worthy of genuine care, concern, and compassion.”

Advocates like yourself can help turn the tide. Learn more in the policy recommendations on the insert on how to advocate to end mass incarceration and support the journey of healing and transformation for all.

Agnes Chen was Legislative Assistant and Communications Coordinator in the MCC U.S. Washington Office.

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