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Justice and Mercy: Federal Sentencing Reform and Native American Communities

Justice and Mercy: Federal Sentencing Reform and Native American Communities

Jail Cells

Last month, my colleague Adam Waters wrote about the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S.2123), and its potential to move us closer to a truly reformed criminal justice system. While passage of this bill would help reduce disparities in our criminal justice system for all racial minorities, it carries notable significance for Native Americans. While many Americans are also subject to a state criminal justice system, major crimes committed on tribal lands are automatically referred to federal courts. This means that federal mandatory minimum sentences and federal prison regulations have a direct impact on Native Americans, even if they have not committed what would be considered a “federal crime” had it occurred in a state rather than on a reservation.

Across the United States, Native Americans are incarcerated two and a half times more often than white Americans. In some states, such as Nevada, this rate is 14.5 times the imprisonment rate for the white population. Youth face even deeper disparities: a 2003 report found that the youth custody rate for Native Americans was the second-highest in the country (African American youth are incarcerated at higher rates). With such a high level of imprisonment, Native Americans could stand to benefit immensely from both the “Sentencing Reform” and “Corrections” provisions of S.2123.

The relief this bill would bring to federal mandatory minimum sentences would make a significant impact on the many Native Americans who were tried in the federal justice system because of the jurisdictional laws I mentioned above. In addition, Native American youth would benefit from the juvenile justice reforms included in the legislation, such as a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles.

As Reform Jews, we recognize that all of those who transgress deserve the opportunity to reshape their lives. We are also taught of the inextricable relationship between justice and mercy – that truly pursuing justice means working to eliminate racial disparities in our criminal justice system and to treat those in custody with dignity. Help us work towards comprehensive criminal justice reform for Native Americans and for all Americans: urge your members of Congress to support the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act today.

Jacob Kraus is the campaign organizer at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, leading the Reform Movement’s Urgency of Now campaigns for criminal justice reform and immigrant justice. Based at the Union for Reform Judaism offices in New York City, Jacob grew up in Cincinnati, OH, where his family is affiliated with Rockdale Temple. He is a 2015 graduate of Macalester College.

Jacob Kraus