How, I recently wondered, did a nation with such deep roots in western Christianity tolerate the injustice of slavery for as long as it did? To be sure there were powerful economic interests in the continuation of slavery. And maybe there were reasonable questions about the Constitution and states rights. And — though I strain to believe it — perhaps a large number of slaveowners and those who supported slavery honestly believed that it was a “benevolent institution” that benefited black people.
Still, how could it have taken the country over 250 years — and a horrific Civil War — to finally end the injustice of slavery? How did so many Christians fail to grasp the Bible’s clarion call for “liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” for so long?
Why, I have also been wondering, is it taking so long for lawmakers and the criminal justice system to put an end to the absurdly long sentences still being routinely handed out to non-violent criminals, especially those committing drug offenses? This question presses me more intensely each time I enter the prison at Canaan to minister.
I have spoken with a federal prosecutor whose work focused entirely on drug traffickers. I understand the explanation that many drug offenders are guilty of far more criminal acts associated with illegal drugs than they are actually prosecuted for. Conversations I have had with inmates who are serving lengthy drug sentences confirm this. Some have readily admitted — to my frequent bemusement, I must add — that while they are currently serving time for something they did not do, they were involved with drugs the day before they were arrested. Just not on the day they did get caught.
Moreover, I work several days a week in a women’s substance abuse rehabilitation center. I see the struggle many of these women are going through as they attempt to reconstruct their lives following years of drug use. But someone had to sell the drugs to them. Did he or she realize the destruction of such actions? Should those who do such things escape punishment? No, there must be consequences. I get that. But is life in prison without parole a truly just punishment?
Yes, you read that last question correctly. I know inmates who received such sentences. And hardly a week passes that a major news organization doesn’t report or opine on how widespread such sentences are.
Today, it was Nicholas D. Kristof on the opinion page of The New York Times. Kristof based his op-ed piece on a recently released report by the American Civil Liberties Union, “A Living Death: Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses.”
The ACLU identified 3,278 prisoners serving sentences of life without parole (LWOP) for nonviolent drug and property crimes in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and in the nine states that provided statistics. “There may well be more such prisoners in the other states,” says the ACLU. The report states that two-thirds of the LWOP prisoners are in the federal prison system (BOP) and that of these, 96 percent are serving LWOP for drug crimes. Eighteen percent of the federal LWOP prisoners were given LWOP sentences for their first offense.
Across the BOP and the nine states surveyed by the ACLU, almost 80 percent of prisoners serving LWOP were convicted of non-violent drug crimes.
This is part of the legacy of the “war on drugs” that brought about an array of mandatory sentences for drug crimes. The ACLU report stated that “83.4 percent of the LWOP sentences for nonviolent crimes surveyed by the ACLU were mandatory.” This means that judges had no discretion and were bound by the sentencing laws. However, “prosecutors, on the other hand, have immense power over defendants’ fates: whether or not to charge a defendant with a sentencing enhancement triggering an LWOP sentence is within their discretion,” the report goes on to say.
Unsurprisingly, at least to someone like me who has spent a lot of time in a high security federal prison, the majority of prisoners serving LWOP for non-violent crimes are black. The ACLU estimates the figure at 65.4 percent.
During the minutes before and after I lead a formal session at the prison, I sometimes hear inmates talking with one another about their convictions, sentences or appeals. I do not understand some of the legal terminology they use so I ask them to explain. It does not take long to figure out that prosecutors have a great deal of latitude in how they choose to charge a defendant and that this can have enormous consequences if the defendant chooses to go to trial and is found guilty. It is also clear that prosecutors offer defendants deals that involve lower, but still mandatory, sentences if they cooperate. This usually means testifying against someone else in exchange for a lighter sentence. I know prisoners who have been on both ends of that conundrum. They chose not to “rat” and got a stiffer mandatory sentence, or they got ratted on and also got a stiffer mandatory sentence.
Because prisoners are locked up far away from the rest of us, serving what we assume to be appropriate sentences for what we assume to be just convictions, the majority of citizens have no idea what the human toll is in having so many of our fellow citizens in prison (1 of every 104 adults) and a disturbing number of them serving LWOP for non-violent crimes. To be sure, the black community knows the cost. But for most of us, it is a non-problem far, far away.
Forty or so years into the “war on drugs” and the subsequent mass incarceration of 2.2 million men and women, with several thousand of them serving LWOP for their non-violent drug crimes, how much longer is a nation where most citizens are Christian going to tolerate this? It only took ten years for the nation to become weary of the unending war in Afghanistan — less than that in Iraq.
Is it not time for our state and federal legislators to negotiate an end to the war on drugs and seriously revise the sentencing guidelines that have brought such pain, especially in the black community? Ought not a largely Christian citizenry demand this, as indeed did many brave Christians in the 1850s when so many were hopelessly enslaved?