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Urge Congress to Pass Comprehensive Sentencing Reform

Over 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, an increase of 1.9 million since 1972. “Tough on crime” law enforcement and sentencing policy adopted in the 1980s has exploded incarceration rates in the U.S., particularly among people of color, quadrupling the number of prisoners per capita in the United States. Throughout every phase, from setting bail, to initial sentencing, to serving time, to release and re-entry, our system is one of over-criminalization and mass incarceration, which disproportionately ensnares low-income people and people of color.

This week, the House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the FIRST STEP Act (H.R.5682), an attempt to implement limited reforms in the federal prison system. Unfortunately, this legislation alone will not achieve meaningful change, and many provisions within the bill will disproportionately harm people of color. Moreover, pursuing prison reform without sentencing reform will not stem the tide of mass incarceration, a phenomenon that is devastating American families and communities and perpetuating racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

It is critical for our elected representatives to hear that Reform Jews demand meaningful sentencing reform and oppose efforts to pursue harmful prison reform legislation. Urge your Representatives to oppose the FIRST STEP Act and urge your Senators to support the comprehensive Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S.1917) so that we can remedy unfair sentencing laws, improve prison practices, and encourage successful reentry for formerly incarcerated individuals across the country. 

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  • Background: 

    Since the start of the war on drugs and the “tough on crime” policies that followed in the 1980s, harsh sentencing policies, like mandatory minimums and three strike laws, have exploded incarceration rates in the United States. With over 2.2 million Americans in prison or jail, the United States now has the largest incarcerated population in the world.

    These policies have been particularly devastating for communities of color. Despite the fact that white and black people use drugs at similar rates, black people are jailed on drug charges 10 times more often than white people. Of the population in federal prisons, half are serving time for drug crimes, and the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses in the U.S. has skyrocketed from 40,900 in 1980 to 469,545 in 2015. Moreover, these troubling sentencing trends remain consistent among non-drug related crime. In 2017, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that black men received 19.1 percent longer sentences than white men, despite committing the same federal crimes.

    The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (S.1917), introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Richard Durbin (D-IL), will reduce mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, expand judicial discretion in sentencing, and retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which substantially reduced the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine offenses. The bill will also incentivize recidivism reduction programs and reform the treatment of youth offenders in the federal system. The bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee by a vote of 15-5 earlier this year.

    Alternatively, the FIRST STEP Act is unlikely to achieve meaningful change and does not include sentencing reform provisions, which is the only way to begin dismantling mass incarceration. The FIRST STEP Act will create a new “earned time” credit system to incentivize rehabilitative programming, but the credits will only count towards time spent in halfway houses and home confinement, instead of actually reducing prison sentences for inmates. The bill excludes a significant portion of the federal prison population from benefitting from these credits, and racial minorities will be disproportionately deemed ineligible. The legislation will also create a risk-based assessment system to assign inmates to rehabilitative programming based on their determined level of risk. These types of tools have been shown to produce disparately negative impacts for people of color, falsely determining that they are more likely to recidivate than their white counterparts. Finally, the FIRST STEP Act seeks to expand programming and increase the utilization of halfway houses and home confinement, yet it fails to include a dedicated funding mechanism to support these already grossly underfunded services.  


    Jewish Values: 

    As Reform Jews, we are tasked with carrying out the directive issued in Deuteronomy 16:20, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof - Justice, justice you shall pursue." The sages explain that the word tzedek is repeated not only for emphasis but to teach us that in our pursuit of justice, our means must be as just as our ends. Whether we are working to reform our bail system, reduce excessive sentencing, or hold elected officials accountable for their policies, we demand that our criminal justice system operate in accordance with our deeply held Jewish beliefs in rehabilitation and redemption, teshuva. As we read in Ezekiel, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live" (33:11). We reaffirm the Biblical precept that criminals are human beings, capable of reshaping their lives and worthy of an opportunity to repent and reenter society.  


    More information: 

    You can email your elected officials through our form above, or you can call the Capitol Switchboard at 202.224.3121 and ask to speak directly with their offices. 

    For more information on this issue, visit the RAC’s criminal justice reform resources page or contact Eisendrath Legislative Assistant Matt Fidel