On Monday, April 20, hundreds of Ecumenical Advocacy Days participants from around the country will meet with the offices of their Senators and Representatives to address these justice issues, after a weekend of education and training on the issues of mass incarceration and systems of exploitation.
We call on Congress to reform federal criminal justice and immigrant detention policies toward the goal of ending unfair, unnecessary, costly and racially biased mass incarceration:
· Adopt criminal justice and sentencing reform policies that incorporate an end to mandatory minimum sentencing;
· Eliminate the detention bed quota for immigrant detention.
End Mandatory Minimum Sentencing
We urge Congress to support federal criminal justice reform legislation that would:
- Allow judges the discretion to fully consider the circumstances of individual cases to arrive at the most appropriate sentencing decision.
- Strike or reduce mandatory minimum sentences.
- Shrink the size of the federal prison system, particularly among people convicted of nonviolent and low-level offenses.
- Eliminate racial disparity and racial bias in sentencing.
- Prioritize alternatives to incarceration for individuals who pose little threat to public safety, and ensure accountability without the use of excessive punishment.
- Overall, federal sentences are excessive given the level of culpability for the average federal prisoner. Half of the federal prison population was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison and 25% was sentenced to between 5 and 10 years in prison. Twenty-six percent of prisoners are serving sentences for violent offenses and about half are serving sentences for drug offenses. U.S. Sentencing Commission research indicates that nearly one-third of federal prisoners have little or no criminal history.
- Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses have created significant racial disparities within the federal prison system. The U.S. Sentencing Commission has also found that Black and Hispanic defendants constitute the majority of people subject to mandatory minimum sentences and existing opportunities for relief from them are less often available to African American defendants. In 2011, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found black defendants were more likely to receive mandatory minimum penalties, in 60.6% of drug cases carrying such a penalty. Hispanic defendants were sentenced to a mandatory minimum in 41% of such cases and whites in 36.3%.
- Excessive sentencing practices, exacerbated by mandatory minimums, created an overcrowding crisis within the federal Bureau of Prisons. During fiscal year 2013, the federal prison system was 36% over its rated capacity. For high and medium security male facilities, capacity exceeded 50% and 45%, respectively. This overcrowding creates a dangerous environment for prisoners and staff because of an increase in misconduct caused by the strain of the deteriorating prison conditions. Prisoners now face triple or quadruple bunking in cells and many recreational areas have transitioned into dormitory space.
- Over three decades of unchecked growth in the federal prison population has burdened the federal criminal justice system and produced increasing costs that are unsustainable. In 1980 the federal prison population was approximately 25,000 and cost about $330 million. By fiscal year 2014 the population had grown to 216,000 people and received an appropriation from Congress of $6.874 billion. The per capita cost of incarcerating an individual in the federal system is $29,000 annually.
- At a time of significant government belt tightening the high cost of prison limits allocations for other important justice programs, like services for victims, crime prevention, and re-entry programs. The Bureau of Prisons consumes over 25% of the Department of Justice’s budget and this proportion will continue to grow if significant reforms designed to curtail growth and reduce the prison population are not enacted.
- Passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act would advance several sentencing reform priorities of the faith community. The legislation’s provisions would limit the long mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, create an immediate reduction in the federal prison population due to the retroactive application of sentencing reforms passed under the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 for crack cocaine offenses, and expand judicial discretion in cases involving the lowest level drug offenses.
- Passage of the Justice Safety Valve Act comes closest to realizing the sentencing goals of the faith community. The legislation would restore judicial discretion in all federal criminal cases by allowing the broadest departure from mandatory minimum sentences.
We support legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015 (S. 502/H.R. 920), sponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Representatives Raúl Labrador (R-ID) and Robert (Bobby) Scott (D-VA), and the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2015 (S. 353/H.R. 706), sponsored by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (R-VT) and Representatives Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Bobby Scott (D-VA), as intermediate legislative approaches to advancing these recommendations.
Our Faith Conviction
As people of faith and conscience, we are deeply concerned for the many millions of men, women and children arrested, sentenced, incarcerated and returned home from incarceration throughout this country. The federal criminal justice system should lead the nation in ensuring proportional and equitable accountability for our brothers and sisters entangled within the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the federal justice system is far from a national model. Since 1980, the size of the federal prison population has increased nearly 800%. Approximately 210,000 people are confined in federal prisons; 12% are in facilities managed by for-profit corporations. Many federal prisons are dangerously overcrowded and rehabilitative programming and treatment opportunities are lacking.
Mandatory minimum penalties -- sentences prescribed by Congress -- have substantially contributed to the increase in the federal prison population over the last 30 years and must be addressed to stop the crisis. We concur with the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission’s 2011 report on mandatory minimum penalties that states, “certain mandatory minimum provisions apply too broadly, are set too high, or both, to warrant the prescribed minimum penalty… This has led to inconsistencies in application of certain mandatory minimum penalties….”
Eliminate the Immigrant Detention Bed Quota
We urge Congress to eliminate the detention bed quota for Fiscal Year 2016.
In the House, Congressmen Deutch (D-FL) & Foster (D-IL) will introduce an amendment to strike the quota language in the appropriations bill. We ask you to:
· Vote in favor of this amendment.
· Contact other offices to gain support for the elimination of the quota.
· Express your opposition to the bed quote in public statements.
The United States has the largest immigration detention infrastructure in the world. The expansion of this system in recent years is partly due to the immigration detention bed quota, a policy passed by Congress under which 34,000 immigrants are held in ICE detention at any given time. This policy is unprecedented; no other law enforcement agency operates on a quota system.
What is the bed quota?
· Enacted by Congress: Congressional appropriations language in ICE’s budget states “[t]hat funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds.”
· Implemented as a quota: ICE interprets this language as a quota requiring the agency to lock-up an average of 34,000 people in immigration detention at any given time.
What is the bed quota’s impact?
· Immigrants are held in facilities in which innumerable human rights abuses and dozens of deaths have occurred. Immigrants are often held with no access to outdoor space, served rotten food, and subjected to wholly inadequate medical and mental health care. Most immigrants are held in facilities hundreds of miles from their families and without access to counsel.
· The quota feeds into a larger system characterized by mass deportation and lack of due process. It incentivizes targeting immigrants for deportation in order to fill jail cells.
· It puts a price tag on immigrant lives. The policy leads Congress and ICE to treat immigrants as numbers to fill a quota, not as real people with children and loved ones who depend on them.
· It costs ICE over $2 billion every year. Money appropriated for the bed quota helps line the pockets of for-profit prison corporations that run over half of all immigration jail beds. The two top private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, have a combined annual revenue of over $3 billion.
Our Faith Conviction
As people of faith we support alternatives to immigrant detention, which runs contrary to our values of basic dignity, due process, and human rights. Immigrants are often held with no access to outdoor space, served rotten food, and subjected to wholly inadequate medical and mental health care. Detained families are seeking protection from sexual assault, trafficking, and violence. The bed quota is a particularly egregious element of the immigrant detention system.
Detention operates on a quota system that keeps 34,000 immigrants imprisoned each day.
· Congress has directed ICE to maintain a daily quota of 34,000 detention beds and has made ICE’s funding contingent on doing so.
· The requirement to fill the quota forces ICE to find immigrants to detain and to continue operating facilities with subpar conditions and track records of abuse.
· No other law enforcement agency is forced to operate on a quota system.
Detention is expensive – there is a human cost to our communities and a monetary cost to taxpayers.
· The administration’s rampant detention and deportation policies mean that the families and communities of nearly half a million people are torn apart each year.
· The most recent budget request for ICE’s Custody Operations is just over $2 billion. During a time of fiscal crisis, it is unacceptable to be spending billions of taxpayer dollars to needlessly detain immigrants. This is a complete waste of resources when other proven and effective methods—including parole, release under supervision, and bond—cost taxpayers far less than detention.
Private prison corporations lobby for policies like the bed quota which keep immigrants in detention.
· Nearly 60% of detention beds are in facilities run by private prison corporations, which rake in profits from the incarceration of immigrants.