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Raising Our Voices for Sentencing Reform

Raising Our Voices for Sentencing Reform

At the URJ’s Biennial conference, November 4-8, 2015, we unveiled the first steps of the Reform Movement’s racial justice campaign. A core component of the campaign strategy is to engage in organizing and advocacy work at all levels of government to combat structural racism. As part of this effort, the RAC has worked with its faith and secular partners to advance meaningful reforms to our criminal justice system that reduce the racial disparities in who is arrested, convicted and sentenced for crimes.

As I wrote about last month, we find ourselves in a unique and exciting moment for criminal justice reform. Republicans and Democrats in Congress have joined together in support of legislation to change how we determine prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123) in the Senate and The Sentencing Reform Act (H.R. 3713) in the House would both reduce mandatory minimums for drug offenses, expand judicial discretion in circumventing mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders and make the sentencing reduction provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive.

Although the exact impacts of these bills are unclear, the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission estimates that several thousand prisoners currently in prison could be eligible for sentence reductions and that many more would benefit from reduced mandatory minimums into the future. Neither S. 2123 nor H.R. 3713 would immediately resolve the problems plaguing our criminal justice system, but they would make a significant first step toward reducing our overcrowded federal prisons and correcting deep injustices in sentencing and incarceration.

Both pieces of legislation also have a real chance to be enacted. S. 2123 was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with a strong 15-5 vote in favor, while H.R. 3713 received unanimous approval from the House Judiciary Committee. As each bill moves to the floor for a full vote, we must make every effort to ensure that a majority of Senators and Representatives recognize the importance of supporting sentencing reform at this critical moment.

As Reform Jews, we in particular can play a pivotal role in framing criminal justice reform as an issue that is not just about reducing prison costs, but also about aligning the criminal justice system with our tradition’s moral and ethical commitments to equal justice, mercy and redemption.

In that vein, Senator Durbin (I-IL), one of the champions of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, will be holding a call with people of faith from across the country this Wednesday, December 2, at 3:00 PM ET. You can access the call by dialing 800-920-7487 and entering access code 76723736.

Take action today and urge your Senators to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. 

Adam Waters is a 2015-2016 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He grew up in Coral Springs, FL, and was a member of Temple Beth Orr. Adam graduated from Brown University.

Adam Waters