“Prison bars do not treat addiction and prison walls cannot rehabilitate communities. We must support at-risk communities and decrease demand for illegal substances.”
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WASHINGTON, D.C., April 28, 2009 — Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, today joined Rep. Bobby Scott, leaders of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, and families from across the country who have been directly affected by crack-cocaine sentencing disparities in supporting the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act and the Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act. The prepared text of his speech follows:
We gather here today from communities across our country. We are here for ourselves and on behalf of those who could not make the journey. We are educators, we are community leaders, we are people of faith. But what links us all together is, in the word of scripture, that we are all pursuers of justice, rodfei tzedek – seeking to ensure justice in a system whose policies are often found wanting, seeking simply justice for communities, families, and people across our nation.
A young pastor from Atlanta once preached, “The past is prophetic in that it asserts loudly that wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” As we look back on the decades-old War on Drugs, we know that Dr. King’s words apply equally to this war as to those fought on battlefields throughout the centuries.
Today, we see a battlefield littered with victims of failed policies that have been unwise, unjust and ineffective. We see that African-American drug defendants have a 20 percent greater chance of being sentenced to prison than white drug defendants. And we know that between 1994 and 2003, the average time served by African-Americans for drug offenses increased by 62 percent, while the increase among whites was just 17 percent. In 1999, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution titled “Race & the US Criminal Justice System” thatr esolved, in part, tosupport legislation to end crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentencing disparities. More than 5,000 people were in attendance to vote on that resolution, and not a single hand or arm raised in protest. We’re very proud of that fact, and we’re going to continue try to strive for efforts to end sentencing disparities.
In this war so poorly conducted, the weapon of incarceration has triumphed over the wisdom of treatment and rehabilitation. The results are tragic. Where is there justice in a policy that gives a minimum 5-year sentence for a sugar-packet’s worth of crack-cocaine? Where is there justice in a War on Drugs whose victims disproportionately come from minority communities? And what does it say about the failures of America’s educational, social, legal and health systems that one in three black men faces the likelihood of incarceration of state or federal prisons?
Justice can only be found in reform of our broken system – and so we gather here today. Together we will combat the mandatory minimum sentences that remove judicial discretion and compel excessive imprisonment. We will fight to end the crack-cocaine disparity that has been a stain on our justice system. We will advocate for passage of the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act and the Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act. And in no small measure, we will succeed.
But our work can not end there. The Prophet Ezekiel taught that we must help offenders “turn from their ways and live” (33:11). Prison bars do not treat addiction and prison walls cannot rehabilitate communities. We must support at-risk communities and decrease demand for illegal substances.
In the Bible, those who answered God’s call to speak on behalf of justice, responded: Hineini, “Here I am.” And today, by coming here, you too have said hineini. Like them you have answered the call to speak for justice and speak truth to power. Together we can, we must and we will succeed.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 1,800 Reform rabbis.