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The Resistance Prays

November 13, 2018
By Kathryn Berg

Today's Top Story
From the New York Times:Bipartisan Sentencing Overhaul Moves Forward, But Rests on Trump.”

A bipartisan group of senators has reached an agreement on the most important rewrite of the nation’s sentencing and prison laws in a generation. The compromise, called the “First Step Act,”  would allow judges to sidestep mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and would shorten the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. It would also retroactively extend a reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, potentially affecting thousands of drug offenders serving lengthy sentences.

The bill creates programs and incentives to reduce recidivism and prohibits shackling of pregnant prisoners. Though more modest than a 2015 bill that stalled in the Senate (this bill is less retroactive, thus affecting fewer prisoners), the proposal is still far-reaching. Lawmakers expect to get the measure before President Trump before the end of the year, if he will support it. Mr. Trump is expected to render judgment on the package as early as this week.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release the comfort all who give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning...they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. - Isaiah 61:1-4
Let the Oppressed Go Free
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, far greater than any other developed country. The racial disparity of our penal system is even more disturbing. From initial charging decisions to plea bargaining to sentencing, blacks are treated more harshly when they are defendants, and their lives are valued less when they are victims.
The enormous increase in the American prison population and the vast disparity in incarceration rates were not due to an increase or disparity in crime rates, but rather to the political decision to be “tough on crime” and especially to the “war on drugs.”  As Michelle Alexander detailed in The New Jim Crow, the war on drugs transformed inmate demographics rapidly and at every level. Prior to the drug war, the demographics of the prison population reflected that of the general public: the prison system was 75% white with roughly 200,000 inmates. It is now 75% people of color, with 2.3 million inmates.
The prison system acts as a gateway to permanent second-class citizenship, since most states permit, if not mandate, discrimination against convicted felons in the areas of employment, housing, education, public benefits, voting, and jury service. Once in the system, blacks are subject to legalized discrimination in virtually every aspect of their lives, creating a caste structure that replays the legacies of slavery and, in many ways, replicates Jim Crow.
Our system of racialized mass incarceration is not only a social, moral, and political travesty - it is a theological one. The Biblical message about imprisonment is unequivocal: free the captives. In the Servant Song, God calls on the faithful “to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, and those who dwell in darkness from the prison." (Isaiah 42: 6-7). Similarly, Lamentations makes clear that “the Lord does not approve” of crushing “all the prisoners of the land” and the psalmist praises the Lord who “sets the prisoners free.” (Lamentations 3:34-36; Psalms 146:7).

The prophet’s proclamation in Isaiah 61 is particularly instructive. Jesus, upon his return from the wilderness, echoed it: “ The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…” (Luke 4:18).
The racial caste structure embodied in our penal system is a sin. At the core of our racialized criminal justice system is the implicit ontology of guilt and innocence based on skin color, an ontology that totally subverts the fundamental theological principle that all human beings are made in God’s image and likeness. The theological call is not just for the release of prisoners, but broadly a call to do justice. Our criminal justice system needs massive reform, including ending our reliance on for-profit prisons, eliminating the racial disparity in enforcement and sentencing, and releasing nonviolent offenders who are held unjustly long. Florida’s restoration of voting rights to people disenfranchised due to felony convictions is a start, and other states should follow suit. The “First Step Act” continues that much-needed reform.
Support The Sentencing Project, which promotes criminal justice reform, or The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to criminal justice reform.

Contact your representatives and the White House, and urge them to pass the First Step Act.
Lord, make us aware of the racial inequity and all inequity in our criminal justice system. Help us recognize our sins of complicity and embrace our theological mandate for reform. Comfort and give strength to those oppressed by our unjust system. Give our leaders the courage and clarity to make change, and impress on us all a call for justice, the need for urgency, and the will and wisdom for reform. Amen.
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