The United States continues to put more people in prison than any other country in the world, with an estimated 2.2 million people currently incarcerated. The U.S. has 25 percent of the world’s total prison population, but only 5 percent of the global population.
Equally shocking are the staggering racial disparities that permeate every part of the U.S. criminal justice system. African-Americans are imprisoned on drug charges ten times more often than their white counterparts and make up 40 percent of the total prison population, despite being only 13 percent of the total U.S. population.
For many years politicians have sought to address problems such as drug addiction with harsh prison sentences. However, the recent opioid crisis has shown that drug addiction continues to be a challenge for many communities and that putting more people in prison will not address the root causes of the problem.
In the 114th Congress, there was a great deal of interest and movement in reforming the U.S. criminal justice system. Our office worked with a coalition of faith-based offices in Washington to gain support from the chairs of the Judiciary Committee in both the House and Senate for these reform efforts. The coalition organized a letter signed by hundreds of clergy in Iowa, including many Mennonite pastors, asking Sen. Grassley, Senate Judiciary chair, to allow a criminal justice reform bill to advance. MCC also helped organize a meeting between faith leaders from the Harrisonburg, Virginia, area and Rep. Goodlatte, House Judiciary chair. Eventually, numerous bills were introduced in both the House and the Senate that had the potential to reduce “mass incarceration” and bring much-needed reforms.
The most promising piece of legislation was the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) in the Senate, which had extensive bipartisan support. If enacted, the SRCA would have lowered some mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and provided standardized programming in federal prisons to help educate and rehabilitate individuals so they would be better able to reintegrate into society.
Unfortunately the SRCA was never brought to the floor of the Senate for a vote, despite voices on both sides of the aisle voicing strong support. A similar series of bills in the House also received noticeable support, but also failed to be brought to the floor for a vote. The Supporting Youth Opportunity and Preventing Delinquency Act, which would have provided funding for juvenile intervention programs, passed the House in September, but failed to advance, as it was not voted on in the Senate.
Criminal justice reform will likely continue to be a topic of interest in the 115th Congress, although it remains to be seen to what extent. President-elect Trump and his nominee for U.S. Attorney General, Sen. Sessions (R-Ala.), have indicated they are not interested in reforming the criminal justice system.
In 2015 Sen. Sessions was one of the few senators who voted against the SRCA in the Judiciary Committee. We hope that Congress will continue to look for ways to reform the criminal justice system next year despite challenges that will need to be overcome. —Joshua Russell