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BY REV. ALEXIS JAMES WAGGONER

March 12, 2019
The Sentencing Project's breakdown of racial inequality in incarceration.
"First Step Act comes up short in Trump’s 2020 budget," via the Marshall Project. The Act, a small step toward criminal justice reform, seeks $75 million for five years, but the new budget only lists $14 million.
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. - Luke 23:32-34
At the church where I work, we’re focusing on the seven last words of Jesus during Lent - sayings that Jesus uttered as his death grew nearer. From this passage in Luke comes the first of the seven words: Forgive.

The First Step Act, passed earlier this year, reduces egregious discrepancies in sentencing, provides more humane treatment while in prison, sentences prisoners to institutions closer to home, and otherwise seeks to take a small step toward a more just criminal justice system.

It’s troubling that we as a society say we want to rehabilitate, and perhaps even forgive, but are in many ways complicit in disproportionate sentencing, racial discrimination, and the life-long effects that come with them.

What does forgiveness look like for people who are facing incarceration under laws that may be responsible for disproportionate punishment, especially with regard to drug offenses in communities of color? Perhaps it looks like not only advocating against unjust sentencing structures, but also advocating for policies like restoration of voting rights, or “ban the box” efforts.
Cory Booker’s Next Step Act may be worth a look. He introduced it this week, and it offers a push toward more progressive criminal justice reform. A man who was released under the First Step Act has some ideas for reform as well. Call your representative to advocate for the change you want to see.
God, just as Jesus called down forgiveness with his final breaths, you remind us that following you means living differently. Open our eyes to the ways we are complicit in systems that don’t extend forgiveness, and give us the compassion and courage to change what we can. Amen.
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