Category Archives: Criminal Justice

EQUAL Act Passes House

EQUAL Act Passes House!

Julia Morris
September 30, 2021

On September 28, the House overwhelmingly voted to pass the EQUAL Act 361 to 66! While there are many issues leading to racial disparities in the criminal legal system, passing the EQUAL (Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law) Act is a huge step forward to ending mass incarceration in the United States. The EQUAL Act (H.R.1693/S.79) is faithful, bipartisan legislation introduced by Representatives Kelly Armstrong (R-ND-AL), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY-08), Bobby Scott (D-VA-03), and Don Bacon (R-NE-02). It seeks to eliminate the disparity in sentencing for cocaine offenses, a major contributor to mass incarceration, and apply retroactively to those already convicted or sentenced.

According to FAMM, in 2019 alone, 81% of those convicted of crack cocaine offenses were Black, even though historically, 66% of crack cocaine users have been white or Hispanic. It is time to end this racist policy and restore proportionality in sentencing.

This May, more than 100 justice-seekers participated in NETWORK’s first virtual lobby day, conducting 50 lobby visits with their Representatives to push for the passing of the EQUAL Act, it is always rewarding to see our hard work pay off.

Before the House vote, NETWORK sent a letter urging all Representatives to support this legislation, saying: “We call on all Representatives to take a firm stance against institutional racism embedded within the criminal legal system by voting yes on the EQUAL Act so that it can swiftly make its way to the Senate floor. ”

Read NETWORK’S Vote Recommendation on the EQUAL Act here.

Now it’s time for the Senate to pass this legislation. Sign up for our action alerts to join our team to put pressure on the Senate to pass this legislation. Text JUSTICE to 877-877 to sign up for text alerts or sign up for emails here.

Virtual Lobby Day: Dismantling Racism in Our Criminal Legal System

Virtual Lobby Day: Dismantling Racism in Our Criminal Legal System

Caraline Feairheller
June 1, 2021

On May 12, 2021, more than 120 justice-seekers from across the country went on 50 lobby visits to urge their Representatives to co-sponsor and vote YES on the EQUAL Act (H.R.1693). Thanks to you, our community of activists, the EQUAL Act now has ten new cosponsors – moving us closer to a criminal legal system that provides fair and equal justice under law!

For decades, the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses has contributed to our country’s shameful legacy of systemic racism and mass incarceration despite being two forms of the same substance. As Executive Director of New Hour for Women and Children Serena Ligouri said at the Lobby Day Kick-Off Rally, “It is by no mistake, in fact it is intentional that racism has continue to perpetuate disproportionate sentencing in the carceral system. It is no longer okay to let our legislators stand back and perpetuate this in our communities.” As we celebrate our advocates for educating our elected officials on the importance of the EQUAL Act, we know there is much more work to do.Mary J. Novak emphasizes how “being sentenced in today’s U.S. criminal legal system is essentially a life sentence if you consider the severe consequences economically, the disruptions in family life, the limited future access to employment, housing, voting, the stigma, the trauma to both the person incarcerated and that person’s family.” In order to build anew, Congress must pass legislation that lifts bans on housing assistance and other social safety net programs for those who have been released from incarceration.

Every person is made in the image and likeness of God and deserves respect, dignity, and equal justice under law. We must support each other in these challenging times and continue working to pass policies like the EQUAL Act and George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. This will help dismantle systemic racism, eliminate the wealth and income gap, improve the wellbeing of our communities, and allow all people to thrive.

Stay engaged and find more ways to take action to advance policies that build our systems and structures anew at www.networklobby.org/ActNow.

A Year After George Floyd’s Murder, Still Working for Policy Change

A Year After George Floyd’s Murder, Still Working for Policy Change

Caraline Feairheller
May 25, 2021

On the one-year anniversary since George Floyd’s death at the hands of Derek Chauvin, it remains clear that the criminal legal system will not self-correct. The racism embedded in the system continues to terrorize Black and brown communities across the nation. We cannot tolerate the loss of another life to police violence. In order to build anew, we must affirm that every person is made in the image of God and entitled to dignity and equal justice under law. This is a sacred responsibility. As Pope Francis reminds us, “we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”

Since passing the House in the 117th Congress on March 3, 2021, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (H.R.1280) has seen no action in the Senate. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is a crucial step in facilitating greater police accountability and towards dismantling the white supremacy in policing by ending long-held practices that allow law enforcement to murder Black people with impunity. The legislation:

  • Ends qualified immunity for law enforcement
  • Establish a national standard on use of force
  • Bans chokeholds and no-knock warrants at the federal level
  • Mandates data collection on encounters with law enforcement
  • Restricts police access to military-grade equipment
  • Improves federal laws to prosecute excessive force

Congress has a moral and civic duty to protect Black lives. NETWORK calls on the Senate to pass H.R.1280, The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act immediately.

Opportunities to remember George Floyd and act for racial justice:

  1. Call your Senators at 888-496-3502 and ask them to pass H.R.1280 the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
  2. Join the Sisters of Mercy in prayer at 2:00 PM Eastern.
    Register here.
  3. Mark the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death with prayer with Catholics 4 the Common Good – GA at 8:00 PM Eastern. Register here.
  4. Watch the George Floyd Memorial Foundation’s panel discussion From Protest to Policy.
  5. Follow the George Floyd Memorial Foundation to stay informed of their work on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
  6. Participate in the George Floyd Memorial Foundation’s Virtual Day of Action.

The EQUAL Act Helps Us Dismantle and Build Anew

The EQUAL Act Helps Us Dismantle and Build Anew

Joan Neal and Sr. Mara Rutten, RSM
April 13, 2021

The Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act (H.R.1693/S.79) is bipartisan legislation that seeks to eliminate the disparity in sentencing for cocaine offenses, a major contributor to mass incarceration, and apply retroactively to those already convicted or sentenced.

The EQUAL Act was introduced in the House on March 9, 2021 by Representatives Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY-08), Bobby Scott (D-VA-03), Kelly Armstrong (R-ND-AL) and Don Bacon (R-NE-02). Across the Capitol, Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had previously introduced the bill on January 28, 2021.

Before introducing the bill, Senator Booker said, “For over three decades, unjust, baseless and unscientific sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine have contributed to the explosion of mass incarceration in the United States and disproportionately impacted poor people, Black and Brown people, and people fighting mental illness… I encourage my colleagues to support the EQUAL Act as a necessary step in repairing our broken criminal justice system.”

While there are many provisions within the justice system that produce discriminatory and racist impacts, the crack/powder sentencing laws are among the most obvious. For many years now, science and experience have shown us there is no difference between use of crack or powder cocaine. Neither one is more or less addictive nor produces more violent behavior in the user. The difference is that crack cocaine has historically been used in more urban communities of color, specifically Black communities, while powder cocaine has more often been found in whiter, more suburban communities. The racial implications couldn’t be clearer.

Furthermore, the sentencing disparity between these two drugs has contributed significantly to the growth of mass incarceration in this country. According to FAMM, in 2019 alone, 81% of those convicted of crack cocaine offenses were Black, even though historically, 66% of crack cocaine users have been white or Hispanic. It is time to end this racist policy and restore proportionality in sentencing.

Events of the past few years have illuminated the systemic inequalities in our country’s criminal legal system. At NETWORK, we cannot continue to tolerate racial profiling, police brutality, the loss of another generation to mass incarceration, or the perpetuation of poverty. As we Build Anew, we affirm the truth that every person is entitled to dignity and equal justice under law. It is time for Congress to act and take a firm stance against institutional racism embedded within the criminal legal system by passing the EQUAL Act (H.R.1693/S.79).

Join NETWORK’s Virtual Lobby Day on May 12 to lobby your Representative to pass the EQUAL Act in the House! Learn more and register here.

American Rescue Plan Must Protect Incarcerated Populations

American Rescue Plan Must Protect Incarcerated Populations

Caraline Feairheller
March 4, 2021

Nearly a year later, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shape the daily lives and policies of everyday people – from social distancing to mask mandates. However, nearly a year later the Congressional response to protecting and ensuring the health of people who are incarcerated has failed to measure up. This moral failure is coupled with the fact the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world and disproportionately incarcerates people of color.

From the onset of the pandemic, it was clear that the enclosed nature and overcrowding of jails, prisons, and detention centers would make social distancing impossible. The failure to adequately address these challenges has resulted in 1 out of every 5 people in prison being infected the loss of and the loss of thousands of lives. While incarcerated, many inmates face barriers to access health services such as expensive medical co-pays especially considering how incarcerated people typically earn 14 to 63 cents per hour which is equivalent to charging a free-world worker $200 or $500 for a medical visit.

The moral failing to protect the health of those incarcerated extends beyond the walls of the prison as upon release returning citizens face intersecting obstacles of low wages, lack of affordable housing, and barriers to government sponsored safety net programs. These harmful barriers to eligibility to exacerbate the hardships of families at a time where an unprecedented number of people are experiencing food insecurity and unemployment.

Our country’s addiction to mass incarceration has jeopardized the health of millions of people. In order to Build Anew, Congress must reintroduce and pass the COVID-19 Corrections Facility Emergency Response Act in order to cover costs of testing, treatment, and provide community support services. , Congress must eliminate health care costs for those who remain incarcerated. Finally, Congress must remove barriers of eligibility to government safety net programs and increase the benefits provided by those programs to better meet the needs of families.

Download the full list of NETWORK asks in the next COVID-19 relief package. 

Don’t miss your chance to advocate for the American Rescue Plan with NETWORK. Text “JUSTICE” to 877-877 to sign up for NETWORK’s text alerts.

Protecting Expression, Not Criminal Acts

Protecting Expression, Not Criminal Acts

India-Grace Kellogg
January 28, 2021

For the past year, our nation’s capital has been flooded by protestors. The Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other people of color’s deaths at the hands of police re-invigorated a debate on what ”acceptable” protests look like. To many, the debate highlighted a clear break in the types of information that citizens are receiving about important topics, whether through their own lived experiences or through the media they are consuming. On one side, Black Lives Matter protestors were considered justice seekers facing violent suppression of their Constitutional right to protest while the other side balked at property damage, arguing that it was about looting and not protesting. When the Proud Boys and other pro-Trump groups arrived in Washington, D.C., a shift in police reaction and rhetoric angered many and highlighted the disparity in the way protestors are handled depending on what they look like and what causes, and perhaps more importantly who, they are supporting.

Complex and deeply personal to each person in this country, the debate on how people in the United States should express their views has always been, in itself, a part of who we are as a country. Our First Amendment rights invite debate with our government and, importantly, dissent to the majority opinion. The breach of the U.S. Capitol building may have seemed brazen and paralyzing to many watching it, but in hindsight, it may be the logical course of events in a country where a leader contributed to decimating trust in our democracy. But, in the aftermath of the events on January 6, 2021, it seems dire to address, factually, the ways we express grievances to our government, and name when that expression no longer honors the values and intent of our Constitution. Those who walked up the steps of the Capitol building, even those who simply passed the first barricade were not the first to step past the boundaries of what the Constitution protects under the First Amendment. Their violent trespassing, many of them armed and with an intent to harm elected officials, was far outside of the bounds of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

Earlier, at a protest on December 12, 2020, Trump supporters openly burned a Black Lives Matter flag taken from the Asbury United Methodist Church, a historic Black church. Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, who admitted to burning the flag but later pleaded not guilty, faces destruction of property charges and was ordered to stay out of Washington by a judge. The D.C. police department labeled the burning of the flag a potential hate crime.

In the District of Columbia, hate crimes such as this act as an enhancement of the crime committed. Under D.C. Statute §22-3703, Bias-Related Crime Act, a person found guilty of a bias-related crime will be fined or imprisoned up to one and a half times the maximum fine or designated term. A bias-related crime means that a criminal act demonstrates the accused prejudice toward a victim. The statute covers a multitude of bases for the accused’s prejudice, including race, color, religion, and political affiliation. While the statute specifies a limited amount of crimes, Aboye v. U.S. established that the term “designated acts” means any criminal act under D.C. law. Therefore, anyone who commits a crime in D.C. that demonstrates their prejudice against the victim of that crime can be charged with an enhanced sentence under §22-3703.

Looking specifically at the actions of the Proud Boys and Enrique Tarrio on December 12, bias-related crime charges could be brought. If it can be established that burning the Black Lives Matter flag demonstrates Tarrio’s prejudice to the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or political affiliation of the Asbury United Methodist Church, Tarrio could be charged with a bias-related crime. However, the crime must not have been committed but for the prejudice. (Lucas v. United States) The prosecution would need to show that Tarrio would not have burnt the Black Lives Matter flag but for his prejudice. While this is a decision left to the discretion of the prosecutor, the potential legal repercussions of burning a Black Lives Matter flag are important to highlight.

While the public debate may often rely on the morality and the nation’s values relating to how we protest, there are legal realities involved that cannot be ignored. The violent attack on the Capitol was not the first, and most likely will not be the last, time that white supremacists and other pro-Trump groups claim Constitutional rights to excuse their criminal actions.

The Constitution does not protect all expression nor does it protect violent actions, as a long history of legal debates have proven. Many states have enhanced penalties for bias-motivated crimes, many that have been challenged for violating the First Amendment. The D.C. Bias-Related Crime Act was upheld as constitutional to the extent that it provides an enhanced penalty for crimes that an individual commits against a victim simply due to their own prejudice against the victim’s protected characteristic (Lucas v. United States).

The First Amendment protects many forms of expression but it does not protect criminal expressions of prejudice against another’s protected characteristics. The precedent concerning what expression is protected by the Constitution is vast and the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States serve to uphold the intent of the Constitution over what many may consider to be justice for those harmed by certain type of expressions. The Proud Boys and those who claim that they are seeking to uphold the values of our country may claim to be within their rights and to be fighting for our nation, but their actions are not protected by the very Constitution they claim to be protecting. While we as a country should and will continue to debate the nuances of protests and their aftermath, we should also continue to do the work of understanding what we are truly debating – when does our expression of disagreement step past what our national conscience believes should be protected? And why?

Bus Blog: New Hour for Women and Children

Bus Blog: New Hour for Women and Children

Caraline Feairheller
September 25, 2020

There are no words to describe the grief of hearing keys jingling down a cell block corridor. There are no words to describe the trauma that long-term isolation can have on a body and mind. Yet, these are common experiences faced by women incarcerated within the United States criminal justice system. The idea that the tremendous trauma created by the U.S carceral system cannot and should not be normalized was the main idea that came out of the September 22nd Nuns on the Bus Virtual Site Visit conversation with New Hour for Women and Children.

New Hour for Women and Children is a Long Island based non-profit founded to provide meaningful support to current and formerly incarcerated women, and their children and families. New Hour was created to address the need for a re-entry program in Long Island, as Executive Director Serene Liguori said “When I got released there was no one there to help me. There was no program to help us. Now, for the first time there is a program on Long Island that supports re-entry.” While the agency may look small, Pamela Neely the Social Justice Coordinator was quick to emphasize that it “gets the work done.” Through serving over 1,000 women in incarceration annually, the numbers only prove her point when comparing the 65% recidivism rate of women who are released from jail to the 2% recidivism rate of women who go through the New Hour program.

The U.S carceral systems measures out punishment in terms of months and years. However, the New Hour Program recognizes that the grief and loss of imprisonment stretches well beyond those years and thus re-entry never stops, it is a lifetime process. Part of this lifetime process is recognizing the reality that all women have faced some form of trauma or violence in their lifetime, so even before experiencing the traumas that come with imprisonment they have their own unique triggers. Program Director Danielle Donaphin emphasized that “I do what I do because I believe in people” and it is this belief in the resilience of these women that the healing process can truly begin. Women, mothers in particular, who make up ¾ of the women behind bars, face unique challenges. Often times, their number one goal is to be reunited with their children and New Hour meets those demands by offering parenting classes and teaching work skills.

As the conversation came to an end, Serenea Liguroi left us with a couple questions that are especially relevant in a moment where prison reform and police accountability are dominating the news streams: “What about the prisons? What about the jails? How do we create equality among those who have been impacted by the carceral system?” We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we can begin by remembering that there is an innate worth in the women who are currently incarcerated those who have been formerly incarcerated. We can begin by remembering that there is a future beyond the prisons walls. We can begin by remembering that we all have the power to change the course of our lives.

Watch the full site visit on Facebook or Youtube.

Not Our Job: Grappling With the Struggle of Being Black and Compassionate

Not Our Job: Grappling With the Struggle of Being Black and Compassionate

Charlotte Hakikson
October 24, 2019

On September 6, 2018, Amber Guyger entered the home of Botham Jean, mistaking it for her apartment, and fatally shot him. Both Guyger and Jean lived in the same apartment building; she lived on the third floor and he lived directly above her. The details of the case are tricky but please feel free to read more about it here. After hearing the case, the jury found Guyger guilty of murder and sentenced her to 10 years in prison. While there are mixed reactions to the sentence, I want to bring our attention to a few events that happened in the courtroom during and after the trial.

Cathy Odhiambo, Guyger’s Black coworker and friend, took the stand in defense of Guyger and spoke to her character. This felt very performative. Was there not anyone else who knew her work ethic and personality, and could speak in defense of her? The Black bailiff comforted and fixed Guyger’s hair while Guyger cried after hearing the verdict. That was extremely difficult to watch. Judge Tammy left her stand to hug Guyger after the trial. That was outright unprofessional. Finally, Brandt Jean, the brother of Botham, said to Guyger, “I don’t even want you to go to jail … I love you as a person, I don’t wish anything bad for you,” then proceeded to hug her.

There was a lot of outrage with what was displayed in the courtroom and I came across a tweet that said, “If you think this is crazy, remember the cross.” As a person of faith, I agree that we should live out Jesus’s teaching to love our neighbor, however I am weary that this message is being targeted solely to Black people.

Black people should not be expected, or forced, to invoke any form labor that makes their oppressor look good. Odhiambo should not have to perform the physical labor of taking the stand in defense of Guyger. Brandt, the bailiff, and Judge Tammy should not have to perform the emotional labor of consoling her. I believe that had the roles been reversed, neither Guyger, nor the white community, would be as compassionate. It is not required for Black people to play the role of Jesus, take up the cross, and forgive their oppressors for oppressing them. I do not want people to feel compelled by any means, whether it be family, friends, or even their faith, to perform an act that has not proven to be beneficial to them in that instant. We mustn’t use the teachings as a way to be complacent and too forgiving for our own good. As Zora Neale Hurston once said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

Funding the First Step Act: Critical Programs for Criminal Justice Reform

Funding for the First Step Act: We Need Programs for Criminal Justice Reform

José Arnulfo Cabrera
April 26, 2019

The First Step Act was a bipartisan bill that took the first step forward to getting criminal justice reform, and in December 2018 it became law! All of these returning citizens would not have been incarcerated if the Fair Sentencing Act had been passed before 2010. The act stopped punishment disparities between both possessing and selling crack cocaine and powdered. But the First Step Act does more than that. It reduces the amount of mandatory minimum by creating a new system called a safety valve, which reviews individual nonviolent drug offense cases with no prior criminal background. The bill will also authorize funding for programs that will help returning citizens break the chains of our injustice criminal justice system. In the next four years, Congress has the authority to appropriate $75 million dollars to rehabilitative for individuals who will be released because of the First Step Act.

Every February the President sends his budget request to Congress as they begin their regular appropriations process. The passing of First Step Act was possible because of many Republicans and Trump, who supported it. But when we saw that Trump only requested $14 million in this year’s budget request, we became worried that the Trump Administration wasn’t committed to implementing the full $74 million the First Step Act authorized. At NETWORK, we believe that the budget is a moral document that shows what our government’s priorities are. If the budget does not allocate the full $74 million authorized to carry out the First Step Act, then it is clear that criminal justice reform is not one of these priorities.

Officials in the Trump administration shared that they plan to increase their funding request in the next budget year to $147 million, so it can offset the money that fell short last year. The Department of Justice (DOJ) also stated that more funding will need to be appropriated in order to be able to begin implement the policies in the First Step Act. At a White House celebration of the passing the First Step Act, Trump stated that his administration has the full intention of fully funding the First Step Act. While the funding is very important, there are programs that must begin to in order for the policies to take place. On April 8, the DOJ announced the first programs that the First Step Act seeks to create. The DOJ‘s National Institute of Justice (NIJ) share they choose Hudson Institute to host the Independent Review Committee. This program will assist the DOJ in developing and implementing risk and needs assessment tools and evidence-based recidivism reduction that will help incarcerated individuals become return citizens. This is a good start and does give us hope the First Step Act policies will be implemented.

NETWORK has been on the Hill talking with the staffers of Congress members, along with our partners, to ensure that $75 million will be appropriated to fully fund the First Step Act policies. For all of the correct programs to be implemented, the bill will need to allot enough money for the government to fund them.

NETWORK Celebrates First Step Act Becoming Law

NETWORK Celebrates First Step Act Becoming Law

Joan Neal
December 21, 2018

NETWORK congratulates Congress for passing the FIRST STEP ACT with strong bi-partisan support and becoming law.  It is rare to see any legislation pass with such backing from both sides and we commend all those who worked so hard to achieve this victory.

While the law offers only modest changes, it begins at long last, the process of making some much-needed improvements to the federal criminal justice system.  Among its more laudable provisions, the legislation reduces the mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses, gives judges more leeway in sentencing, revises the ‘good time’ credit calculation, improves conditions in federal prisons, including prohibiting the use of restraints on pregnant incarcerated women, and provides additional resources for rehabilitation, job training, and recidivism reduction programs that increase the chances for success for those who will eventually re-enter society.

At the same time, some of the provisions fail to go far enough.  Many of the sentencing reductions are prospective–forward looking only.  This potentially leaves thousands of people in prison, continuing to serve time under the very outdated laws this bill revises.  Additionally, it allows private prison companies to profit, fails to address parole for juvenile offenders, and exposes inmates of color to the possibility or disparate treatment due to racial bias in the risk assessment tool.  As its name implies, the FIRST STEP ACT is a beginning, a place to start to make our federal criminal justice system more just and humane.

Nevertheless, we commend lawmakers for taking this ‘first step’ at reform.  Clearly, there is more work to be done to reduce the number of people entering the system, to eliminate racial disparities and to create second chances for all those impacted.  Our faith teaches us that redemption and rehabilitation are possible even for people who have committed crimes against society and our criminal justice system should reflect that value.  This can be the beginning of such transformational change.