Mass incarceration has taken a toll on our whole country. With nearly one in 100 adults in prison, everyone has been affected. Even if no one you know has been imprisoned, the financial burden (the U.S. will spend $9 billion on federal prisons this year) falls on us all. That being said, we have not all been affected equally — African American communities have been hurt the hardest. One in three African American males will spend time in prison in his lifetime, a number that is as astonishing as it is horrific.
One way in which incarceration disproportionately impacts African Americans can be found in our federal mandatory minimum laws. These mandatory minimums, though created with the intention of fairness, are inflexible to the point of disregarding the context of the individual who committed the crime. For drug offenses, the minimums are triggered solely by amount of a substance, ignoring an individual’s history or role in an organization. African Americans are much more likely than any other group to be sentenced under a mandatory minimum, a big reason why the prison population is so imbalanced.
There is some hope for African American communities that things are beginning to change. A bipartisan group in the U.S. Senate has introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. This piece of legislation would put limits on the scope of mandatory minimums, making sure that they are targeted at only the more serious of offenders. It would also give judges more sentencing discretion and expand re-entry programs. This would allow many individuals convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses a chance to avoid decades in prison. It saves money and prison beds, while allowing low-risk individuals the chance to rebuild their lives.
I have worked on criminal justice issues for over 15 years, including helping provide a second chance for formerly incarcerated individuals. One thing that struck me was how many of these individuals, predominantly African American and Hispanic, were incarcerated for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. They deserve some form of sentence for their offenses, but decades in prison just does not make sense.
In Illinois, we have seen our fair share of violent crime, and there are certainly violent offenders who deserve lengthy sentences. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act does not affect these offenders at all. Rather, it frees up money to help prosecute these serious offenses.
Sen. Mark Kirk has not yet given his support for the bill, and I am not sure why. After his remark earlier this year that “we drive faster” through African American neighborhoods, his spokeswoman released a statement saying that “No one can question Senator Kirk’s commitment to the African-American community.” Well, if he does not support this bill, I would have a question or two. Supporting the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act means supporting African American communities. It means that more young African Americans can have second chances and more families can stay together.
If Sen. Kirk is serious about standing behind his African American constituents, he should strongly consider standing behind this bill. It will not solve our country’s incarceration issues in one sweep, but it will make things a little less harsh, a little more sensible, and a little more equal.
Rev. Akexander Sharp was the founding executive director of Protestants for the Common Good from 1996 to 2012 and now heads Clergy for a New Drug Policy. He is also a member of Hyde Park Union Church in Chicago.
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