By Agnes Chen
The U.S. criminal justice system has long operated within a retributive model. This approach was intensified 40 years ago, when U.S. lawmakers launched the failed “war on drugs.”
Since then, incarceration rates in the U.S. have soared on an unprecedented level. More than 2.3 million individuals are currently behind bars. Many of them are serving harsh mandatory minimum penalties, despite having committed low-level, nonviolent offenses only. Numerous factors, including sentence disparities between crack and powder cocaine, have also led to the disproportionate incarceration of communities of color.
Recently, however, there have been significant talks among U.S. policymakers to reverse the effects of mass incarceration. Members of Congress introduced and co-sponsored bipartisan legislation to address the harms of mandatory minimum penalties, including the Justice Safety Valve Act and the Smarter Sentencing Act.
In the fall of 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke out against mass incarceration and announced broad policy reforms to reduce mandatory minimums and to step up compassionate releases and reentry programs. As the head of the U.S. Department of Justice, his remarks were a strong encouragement to Congress to pass necessary fixes to the justice system.
Mennonite Central Committee continues to provide educational resources and implement restorative justice as an alternative means to approach crime and harm in the U.S. and abroad. In 2013, Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC U.S., taught courses on restorative justice at Anabaptist institutions and conducted workshops at the Mennonite Church USA convention and the National Restorative Justice Conference. Our office works with the MCC U.S. Restorative Justice Coordinator and regional offices to represent the voice of restorative justice practitioners to federal policymakers.
In early 2014, the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin to mark up various bills related to sentence and reentry reforms. It is our hope that a comprehensive criminal justice bill will pass during the remaining session of the 113th Congress.
MCC U.S. also continues to support critical gun safety measures. Despite national attention given to gun violence in light of the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy, Congress failed to pass the implementation of universal background checks and the banning of gun trafficking, assault weapons and high capacity magazines. Join our efforts to reduce gun violence! Encourage your congregation to participate in the 2014 March Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend to pray for victims, family members, and communities affected by gun violence and urge our lawmakers to end gun violence.