"We do not teach justice by being unjust"

April 11, 2014

Penalties must be appropriate to crime, social justice agency head tells senators

by Wayne Rhodes, Editor, Faith in Action 









The Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe (fourth from left), chief executive of the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society, was among persons who participated in a discussion of mandatory-minimum sentencing conducted by U.S. Senate Democracts. Others who spoke (from left) are David LaBahn, president, Assn. of Prosecuting Attorneys; Laura Murphy, director, Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union; Hilary Shelton, NAACP Washington Bureau Director and Senior Vice President for Advocacy; Henry-Crowe; Craig DeRoche, president, Justice Fellowship; and Wade Henderson, president, Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The chief executive of the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) told U.S. Senate Democrats that we do not teach justice by being unjust. The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe made her remarks at a discussion last week convened by Senate Democrats on the need for drug-sentencing reform.

The senators, who in January passed reform legislation called the Smarter Sentencing Act, contend it will reduce severe overcrowding in the federal prison system and free up needed resources for other criminal-justice priorities.

Henry-Crowe thanked the senators for seeking input from the religious community. She pointed out that The United Methodist Church chairs the only faith coalition in the nation’s capital working to reform the criminal-justice system. She said 35 faith groups are involved in the Faith in Action Criminal Justice Reform Working Group.

Most important, however, Henry-Crowe said she was speaking as a clergy member of the denomination, having served more than three decades as such. She told the senators her introduction to the criminal-justice system occurred while she was a young pastor in South Carolina.

Injustice of disproportionality

“I visited in jail a young parishioner, who was a young single mother of two small children,” Henry-Crowe recalled. “She had been convicted of stealing bread and peanut butter from a local Stop and Shop.”

The authorities wanted to make an example of this woman, according to Henry-Crowe, and sentenced her to 18 months in jail. “I saw the devastating results of separating her from her children, her community, her family,” Henry-Crowe said, “and depriving her and her children of a future for trying to feed her family.”

Henry-Crowe emphasized that justice is based on proportionality. “Penalties must be appropriate to the violation,” she declared. “An 18-month sentence for stealing bread and peanut butter creates significantly more harm to the person who committed the offense and her family than the community suffered from that theft.”

Likewise, Henry-Crowe emphasized that a mandatory five-year sentence for a street dealer selling one ounce of crack cocaine is not justice. “Excessive sentences do not restore people,” she said. “We do not teach justice by being unjust.”

Henry-Crowe said the Smarter Sentencing Act, which the Senate Judiciary Committee approved, but the House’s counterpart still sits in committee, begins to move the criminal-justice system away from the injustice of disproportionality.

25% of world’s prison population

The United States incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other country. In fact, the United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population.

Supporters contend that advancing legislation like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act will save taxpayer dollars that can be better invested in public-safety priorities such as crime prevention, law enforcement, victims’ services, and recidivism reduction, while working to ensure fairness and proportionality in sentencing.

The senate version of the act passed with bipartisan collaboration. Republicans Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona joined the committee’s Democrats in supporting the measure.

“Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses have played a huge role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., author of the Smarter Sentencing Act. “Once seen as a strong deterrent, these mandatory sentences have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety.”

Durbin said that given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, judges should be given the authority to conduct an individualized review in sentencing certain drug offenders. Judges should not be “bound to outdated laws that have proven not to work” and cost taxpayers billions, according to him.

Simply unsustainable

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said mandatory minimums are costly, unfair, and do not make the United States safer. “We must acknowledge that these sentences have led to a federal prison population that is expanding at a rate that is simply unsustainable,” he said.

Leahy said such growth means fewer resources for federal prosecutors, Drug Enforcement agents, and FBI agents. He said it means less support for state and local law enforcement, and limited funding for crime prevention programs and victim services.

“If we fail to address our burgeoning prison population, we will be cutting the very programs that help keep us safe,” Leahy said. “That is why I partnered with Sen. Durbin and others on the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, and that is why the full Senate must act.”

Senate Democrats will continue to work to strike the appropriate balance between fair sentencing and ensuring public safety in our communities. By doing so, we can create a sustainable future for our criminal justice system and provide lasting security for our communities.

Editor's note: The Faith in Action Criminal Justice Reform Working Group has embarked on a 30-day campaign to encourage senators to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act. You can read more about this campaign at "Pass Smarter Sentencing Act" in this issue of Faith in Action.