In early December, I sat down at the conference table in Sen. Susan Collins’ office in Washington, D.C., and shared my experience with mass incarceration in my own city of Augusta. Upon visiting a county jail where I would be teaching monthly classes for inmates, I was shown the room that formerly housed the chapel. Peering through the window, I saw 30 men lying on thin mattresses on the hard floor. There was simply no other place to put them. As a result of the prison’s overcrowding, all religious meetings had been moved to the room otherwise used for videoconferencing with the courthouse next door.
I went to Washington with more than 60 people from across the country and all walks of life as part of the Sentencing Reform Lobby Day organized jointly by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition and other partners. Many of those present were clergy from diverse faith communities; others were secular activists. All of us were united in our commitment to rolling back the tide of mass incarceration.
We gathered to talk with our senators about The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123), a historic piece of legislation, which would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, put more emphasis into rehabilitation and anti-recidivism programs and limit solitary confinement and life without parole for juveniles.
Unlike most proposals in Washington, this one has true bipartisan support, with Republican Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa, John Cornyn of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah joining Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Dick Durbin of Illinois as the lead sponsors behind this landmark bill.
It also has a real shot at becoming law. The bill already has been successfully voted out of committee. The next step is a full vote in the Senate. The more senators persuaded to voice their support for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, the more likely the bill will be scheduled for a vote in the coming weeks.
It is inspiring to know I am not alone in calling for the passage of this legislation. On Dec. 19, Reform Jewish rabbis and congregants throughout the country called their senators to express support for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. And the momentum for these changes extends far beyond the Reform Jewish community, from the Maine Council of Churches to clergy and lay leaders of many other religious traditions throughout the United States.
As a rabbi, I stand proudly with this ever-growing coalition of people of faith to end the injustices in the criminal justice system.
I refuse to stand idly by while tens of thousands of Americans serve unjustly long sentences in federal prisons for drug offenses.
I will not tolerate a system in which one in three black men born today may serve some time in prison during his life and in which black women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated.
And as I proclaim the Jewish tradition’s teaching that “there is none on earth so righteous as to only do good and never sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20), I affirm that even those who commit crimes are deserving of mercy and redemption.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will not immediately resolve the problems in the criminal justice system, nor will it bring about a society free of all racial injustice. It will not directly impact state and county prison populations, either. It can, however, serve as a guide for states looking to enact their own sentencing reform. Most importantly, it will take meaningful and significant first steps to undo decades of over-criminalization and mass incarceration at a the federal level.
Let us join together to call on Collins and Sen. Angus King to commit themselves to moral action against injustice by supporting the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
Rabbi Erica Asch is the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Augusta.