Hoping — against hope — for a shorter sentence

I led the Protestant service last night at a federalĀ  minimum-security prison facility. About a dozen inmates came out. At one point I asked, “What’s the good news?” I was met with some puzzled looks. I explained that, as Christians, we are people of good news because the gospel is good news. “So,” I asked again, “what’s the good news?”

After a pause, one inmate held up his hand. I invited him to share the good news.

He began with the statement that God is not limited or controlled by the will of humans. “I believe,” he said, “that God can do supernatural things even when there is no reason to believe that anything will change.”

The inmate proceeded to describe how, in response to President Obama’s invitation to nonviolent drug offenders to apply for a commutation of sentence, he had written a letter to the Justice Department. He said he was aware when he did so that he did not technically qualify because (1) he had less than 10 years left on his sentence, and (2) he was not convicted of a drug offense. But, with God, all things are possible, he affirmed.

He went on to note that he received an acknowledgment of his letter, saying what he already knew — that his situation did not qualify under the guidelines of the program. Still, he insisted, “I believe that God is going to shorten my sentence and that I will be leaving here before the end of this year.”

Lacking any faith at all, I replied, “God really has his hands full when it comes to the Justice Department processing these commutation requests.” Later in the service, I tried to recover by praying for justice on behalf of all who are victims of injustice.

Little did I know that I would find on the website of Politico this morning an article by Josh Gerstein, “Obama’s drug-sentencing quagmire,” that pretty much makes my faithless statement last night look too optimistic.

Amid all the protests over the killings of black men and boys by white police officers in recent weeks, one finds imbedded here and there in the news articles statements that crime rates in America are almost at historic lows. Everyone seems to be wondering why.

Some think they know why. It’s because we have about 2 million men incarcerated at the moment. In other words, crime rates will go down when you lock up all the criminals. Or so goes the supposition.

What worries me is that the prison-is-the-solution crowd will, once again, carry the day. And that when and if lots of prison inmates start receiving commutations, fear of rising crime rates will stir the keep-’em-locked-up true believers (especially within the Justice Department) to find a way to end Obama’s grand experiment with commutations.

As if it needs any more challenges than it already has. Just read the Politico article. It left me pretty deflated.

The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013

To many who have never had a loved one in prison, or who were the victim of a crime, or who assumed that our judicial system delivered pristine justice at all times; a law to reduce sentences for non-violent crimes probably seems unnecessary at best or misguided at worse. But to the many inmates in federal prison, serving lengthy sentences for non-violent crimes, including drug trafficking, such a law is long overdue.

The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 was introduced in the United States Senate on July 31, 2013 and referred to the Judiciary Committee. The Judiciary Committee reported it to the entire Senate for consideration on January 30, 2014. The bill, introduced by Richard Durban, Democrat of Illinois, now has 10 cosponsors — 5 Democrats, 4 Republicans and 1 Independent. Among the Republican cosponsors are three of the Senate’s most conservative members — Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul.

The bill has a fairly good chance of becoming law. If that happens, according to a summary of the law produced by the Library of Congress, the following will result:

  1. It will amend the federal criminal code to direct the court to impose a sentence for specified controlled substance offenses without regard to any statutory minimum sentence if the court finds that the criminal history category for the defendant is not higher than category two (under current law, that the defendant does not have more than one criminal history point).
  2. It will authorize a court that imposed a sentence for a crack cocaine possession or trafficking offense committed before August 3, 2010, on motion of the defendant, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, the attorney for the government, or the court, to impose a reduced sentence as if provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 were in effect at the time such offense was committed.
  3. It will amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act (CSIEA) to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for manufacturing, distributing, dispensing, possessing, importing, or exporting specified controlled substances.


If it becomes law this bill will not afford very much comfort to prisoners convicted of violent crimes. But it may do something very good for the many (mostly black) men who are serving lengthy sentences for non-violent drug offenses. The bill is especially noteworthy for two things: First, it will remedy the significant disparity in sentences given for crack cocaine possession or trafficking as opposed to sentences for powdered cocaine possession and trafficking. Second, the bill will allow courts to disregard the mandatory minimum sentences if the defendant is not a violent criminal or repeat offender.

The effects of this bill, if it becomes law, will be retroactive. Many who are currently serving sentences could have a reduced sentence imposed and, in some cases, be immediately released from prison.

Aside from its implications for justice, this bill recognizes another reality. The financial cost of the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders is staggering. The nation’s prisons are full and, in some cases, overcrowded. The sentencing guidelines that put so many behind razor wire are viewed by many as unaffordable.

In the facilities where I minister, inmates are talking about this bill. When I lead Christian services, we take time to pray for the passage of this bill. For many, that may not seem like much. For those sentenced under the mandatory minimums, the prayers are fervent because the injustice seems so real.