The Smarter Sentencing Act (S.1410), sponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL), is an incremental approach to justice reform that would reduce harsh minimum mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenses, help increase fairness, reduce racial disparity, and limit overcrowding in the Bureau of Prisons.
In the PC(USA) we affirm God’s intention of shalom for each child of God and in restorative justice, which, simply put, is “addressing the hurts and the needs of the victim, the offender, and the community in such a way that all—victim, offender, and community—might be healed.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Safer Sentencing Act on January 30, 2014, and it was placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar on March 11.
The federal prison population has increased by 800% since 1980 and the introduction of overly punitive mandatory sentencing policies that targeted people convicted of drug offenses. Nearly half of those federal inmates are serving sentences for drug offenses, many of which are low-level and nonviolent. Today, the Bureau of Prisons is nearly 40 percent over capacity and consumes over 25 percent of the Department of Justice's budget.
Furthermore, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has testified before the Judiciary Committee that African-American and Latino defendants constitute the majority of people subject to mandatory minimum sentences. Opportunities for relief from these overly punitive sentences are rarely made available to defendants of color. Passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act would be an important first step toward restoring fairness in our justice system by limiting this existing racial disparity.
The Presbyterian Church has a long tradition of commitment to justice reform:
- In 1910 the General Assembly declared that the church ought to stand “For the development of a Christian spirit in the attitude of society toward offenders against the law.” (Minutes, PCUSA, 1910, Part I, p. 232).
- The 215th GA approved a Resolution Calling for the Abolition of For-Profit Prisons stating, “We believe that the ultimate goal of the criminal justice system should be ‘restorative justice.’” (Resolution on Restorative Justice, Minutes, 2002, Part I, p. 576).
- In 2004, the 214th General Assembly approved a Resolution on Restorative Justice.
- In 2012, the 220th GA encouraged Presbyterians to join in the call of US faith leaders to urge the president to sign, and the Senate to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture in order to reduce risk of torture and abuse in U.S. prisons.
- In February 2014, Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, Director of the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness, joined thousands of Presbyterians, ministers, theologians, and lay people who marched to the state capital in North Carolina. This Moral Monday march included a focus to end disparities based on class and race in the criminal justice system.