The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
While the momentum on criminal justice reform has waned in Congress in recent weeks, the White House has recently taken steps in the broader effort to reduce mass incarceration. Last week, President Obama announced new grants of commutation to 61 people currently serving long and overly punitive sentences. Around one-third of those granted sentencing relief had received life sentences. This new round of actions brings the President’s total number of commutations to 248 – more than the previous six presidents combined.
The efforts by the administration to reduce our nation’s bloated prison population are laudable. With more than two million people behind bars in the United States, and one in five incarcerated people serving time for a drug offense under harsh mandatory minimum laws, there is an urgent need to reexamine how our criminal justice system operates. As Reform Jews, we understand that mass incarceration and harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses go against one of the most fundamental principles in our tradition: that all people are better than their worst mistake and are deserving of mercy and redemption.
Clemency is just one of the many ways in which the federal government can address the problems of over-criminalization and mass incarceration, and the complicated politics associated with clemency demonstrate that this tool cannot operate alone to tackle the myriad problems in our criminal justice system. There should be accompanying legislative action at the local, state and federal levels to reform sentencing laws, restore judicial discretion, promote alternatives to incarceration, improve conditions in prison and offer prisoners better opportunities for rehabilitation and reentry.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123) in the Senate is a truly bipartisan bill that would tackle many of the problems above. It would also ensure that efforts to address mass incarceration apply retroactively – to those previously convicted and sentenced – as well as proactively – to those who might commit crimes in the future. This is simply not possible with pardons or commutations, which by nature are retroactive solutions. The Senate must act swiftly to take up and approve the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Join us in calling on your Senators to support criminal justice reform today.
Photo courtesy of Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons