Category Archives: Criminal Justice

The First Step Act Doesn’t Go Far Enough

The First Step Act Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Joan Neal
May 25, 2018

The House just passed the First Step Act, a bill purporting to be a significant step forward in prison reform.  Despite the claims of the bill’s supporters that it will make the prison system fairer and more effective, this bill will not alleviate the overcrowded, discriminatory nature of our federal prison system.  In fact, while it contains some modest reforms such as prohibiting shackles on pregnant women during child birth; adding some educational, job training and personal development programs; and providing limited opportunities to earn ‘time credits’ toward early release, the bill fails to include provisions to overhaul and fundamentally transform the nation’s justice system.  Research shows that we need both sentencing and prison reform to achieve meaningful change in our criminal justice system.  The First Step Act, focusing only on the back end – more geared towards limiting prison time after someone is incarcerated — is inadequate to achieve that goal.

Backed by the White House (Jared Kushner and President Trump), the bill has the support of various individuals and factions of conservatives, including the Koch Brothers, Grover Norquist, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, most House Republicans (especially members of the House Freedom Caucus), Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who previously co-sponsored the bi-partisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, and some moderate Democrats.  Even with all of that support, the First Step Act fails to address some of the big problems in the current criminal justice system: racial disparities, chronic prison overcrowding, a focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation, and the exorbitant costs of incarceration, borne by the government, tax payers, prisoners and their families.

Moreover, some of its provisions could actually have the opposite effect of its intent by putting in place policies that are more discriminatory toward inmates of color and women.  For instance, it calls for the development of a “risk assessment system,” to be implemented and overseen by the current Attorney General, who has a history of opposing sentencing reform, supporting punitive rather than rehabilitative policies and practices, and targeting immigrants and immigration related offenses.  This bill may well do more harm than good.

Supporters of the bill argue that we must make a choice:  either we pass prison reform or sentencing reform.  There is no possibility to do both.  It’s false to say there is only one choice.  For several years, a comprehensive, bi-partisan bill – the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act – has been gathering support in both houses.  Clearly, passing comprehensive criminal justice reform is possible.  We do not have to choose one or the other.

Meaningful criminal justice reform requires both front and back end changes.  Congress should, therefore, abandon the First Step Act and take up the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act instead.

Powerful Young Voices for Justice

Powerful Young Voices for Justice

Emma Tacke
November 21, 2017

In early November I had the pleasure and honor of emceeing the 20th annual Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice (IFTJ).  This was a weekend where over 2,000 students from Jesuit affiliated high schools and colleges gathered in Washington D.C. to learn, celebrate, pray, and challenge one another to “row into the deep,” the theme for the conference. At a time when those in power continue to espouse prejudice, violence, and hate, the need for weekends such as these feel all the more necessary. It was restorative to spend time with such an energetic group of people who shared a common desire to build a more just world with fairer policies and a more empathetic and inclusive culture.

Let me be clear: this weekend was not reduced to a self-congratulatory party where we affirmed each other for being good socially and politically conscious people. This annual gathering was a chance for all who attended to put faith into action. It was a reminder that our commitment to God requires us to be resilient and dogged in the face of injustice.  The call of this year’s Ignatian Family Teach-In beckoned us to “Wake ourselves and others from dormancy” and to not “accept the status quo in either ourselves or our surrounding world . . . we will row into unfamiliar waters that will stretch and challenge us, but ultimately move us to magis, a greater, stronger, and more enduring love of justice.”

This theme of challenging ourselves to be courageous and work for justice was threaded throughout the conference’s breakout sessions. The narrative that we are powerless in the face of systemic injustices such as racism, classism, and institutionalized violence was rejected and tossed aside by dynamic and influential keynote speakers such as Father Bryan Massingale, Sister Patricia Chappell, and Dr. Maria Stephan. The weekend ended with a day of advocacy on Monday when over 1,400 IFTJ participants went to Capitol Hill to advocate for bills promoting criminal justice and immigration reform.

The students I met were engaged, smart, empathetic, and ready to talk about what they could do to be better advocates for justice. They queued up for a chance to speak with Jesuit priest Father James Martin, a celebrity in the Ignatian community. They packed crowded conference rooms to learn about the racial wealth gap, ending the death penalty, changing the civil discourse on immigration, and dozens of other topics. Hundreds of students made their way through the hall to visit the myriad of faith-based organizations that passed out information and advocacy tools.

Millennials are often dismissed as a self-absorbed, politically disengaged generation. As a millennial myself, it’s difficult for me to be objective, but what I witnessed at IFTJ and what I often see from my peers is anything but self-absorption and political apathy.  The momentum and energy generated by the 2,000 students at IFTJ wouldn’t have been possible if this group of young people were not aching to change the world. This desire to make a difference is not limited to IFTJ participants, nor should it be reduced to naiveté or foolish optimism. I am inspired by my peers to seek the truth and confront systemic and social injustice.  When working for justice, progress is often slow and pushing back against oppressive institutions is exhausting. It is not work that can be done alone. This year’s Ignatian Family Teach-In was a call to action many responded to wholeheartedly.

I want to bottle the collective energy I experienced throughout the IFTJ weekend and take a swig any time I feel lacking in courage to continue challenging myself to advocate for justice. There is strength in numbers and the Igantian Family Teach-In is an example of the power collective faith in action can have in the march towards a better future.

Emma Tacke is a former NETWORK Grassroots Mobilization Associate. She currently works as the Associate Director of Community Engagement at Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN) in Washington D.C.

The Importance of Intentionality

The Importance of Intentionality

Jeremiah Pennebaker
November 15, 2017

What do I owe to the generations coming after me?

I was always taught to “reach back as I forge ahead” in my life and that nobody gets to where they’re going without some help and guidance from those who came before them. So I try and take that to heart, especially when I’m in a position where I can speak about my experiences and expertise.

I had an opportunity to do just that this past weekend at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice (IFTJ),  a conference for members of the Ignatian network  to come together to reflect and advocate for justice. Overall, it was a rewarding weekend of teaching, reflecting and discerning. My fellow NETWORK Associate Claudia Brock and I were tasked with educating various high school and college groups. We had the chance to talk to a multitude of young people who are motivated by their faith and values to engage in the political process throughout the weekend. Seeing their passion to learn about and do justice was very inspiring. At times I really felt that I was living up to that idea of helping those after me to move forward. I shared my knowledge and experience, provided them with insight on my position at NETWORK and told them how they can become NETWORK Associates one day.

What I failed to realize is that I would learn more from them than they would learn from me. The students at IFTJ taught me valuable lessons and inspired me to be a better pioneer for justice. I was particularly inspired at a session on what it means to be a feminist. I saw a big group of Black boys walk in, something I would have thought to be impossible, as it took me until my senior year of college to grasp the importance of feminism. So often I had heard and witnessed the lack of respect that men have for women — specifically in my friend circles– but to see a group of Black high school boys interested in feminism gave me some hope. I listened to a panel on immigration and heard one of the most heartbreaking stories of my life about a woman who lost her family to insidious immigration policies and procedures. I watched as the woman regained her resolve and spoke about how she continues to push forward even in the most daunting of situations.

I learned not only from hearing the experiences of others, but also by presenting at the conference. After my session on the Racial Wealth and Income Gap, I was critiqued by a young group of Black and brown students. Their feedback made me realize that I need to do better job of being intentional when I am attempting to “reach back as I forge ahead.” While presenting on the Racial Wealth and Income Gap, I made the mistake of only thinking about how my message impacts the white students in the audience. In my mind, I had only considered how the white students needed to learn about the horrific sins of the past and how the subject of racism is woven into our federal policies. I failed to account for the experiences of those who are too often the only person of color in the room.

I forgot about the times when I wished I wasn’t in history class surrounded by pale faces talking about how their ancestors didn’t think mine were people. I forgot what it felt like to feel singled out because slavery this and redlining that. I forgot that for the select few in the audience this was their daily experience and not just some educational exercise. I forgot maybe because I had become numb to being the token, a position I was placed so often. I realized that does not mean that I should irresponsibly place others in that position. I owed it to these students. They shouldn’t be forced to deal with both the reality of their situations and the potential condescension and or guilt of their white counterparts. I realized that it was my burden to bear as a facilitator to try and alleviate them from that difficult position in whatever way that I can. I realized that I need to hold myself more accountable to the people who look like me because I know they already have it hard enough.

I learned a lot from IFTJ. I learned what I could do to be a better example for the generations after me. I learned that as hopeless as the media may make the world look, there are too many people of all ages working for justice that I refuse to believe it.

Being a Woman of Color in the Trump Era

Being a Woman of Color in the Trump Era

LaTreviette Matthews
November 8, 2017

Historically our country has viewed women and people of color –especially those on the low end of the socio-economic scale– as second-class citizens.  Never before, however, had I experienced so many emotions for just being me than I did after the 2016 election. The first thing I felt was a tremendous amount of fear. After the election, there seemed to be a rise in hate crimes and attacks on unarmed men and women of color. I did not want to leave my house. Subsequently the fear left me and I turned to anger. I felt angry that after having an African American president for two terms, now in the year 2017, people of color were still being treated like they are less deserving of being in this country than everyone else. I felt the pain of my ancestors and was ready for war against white supremacy and white privilege.

When fighting for the right to self-determination, people of color have endured pain and resistance. I did not want to do things the old fashion way by engaging in non-violent protests, boycotts, demonstrations, and marches. I vacillated between fight and flight, all the while determined to protect myself and my family at all costs. My emotions were beginning to change again. I was in limbo. I was still angry but now angry with a purpose. I wanted to do something. For centuries people of color have tried many forms of fighting back against racism and injustice. I wanted to do something that was going to make a difference. This presidential election was the catalyst for my ferocity. Uncertain of my future and armed with a fierce determination, I sought community support.

Before last year, I did not consider myself a political person. I did vote in the last five presidential elections; I felt it was important for my vote to be counted. However, for presidential elections held before then, I was uninterested in social political activism and did not understand the importance of having my voice heard through voting. Although I was aware that people fought very hard in this country for African Americans to vote, it did not dawn on me that my voice would make a difference today. Growing up as a young woman of color, I did not have someone like Sister Simone at my high school or college to discuss my political views, encourage me to go to a protest, or show me how joining a political group could make a difference. I thought the political stuff was best left up to the adults.

I believe everything happens for a reason. I am convinced that this backlash against Obama’s presidency happened in order to shake things up and to awaken people to the injustices happening in this country; injustices that have gone on for far too long. Aside from racism, sexual harassment and assault, just to name a few, are issues that have impacted me the most following the 2016 election. Over the past five years working at NETWORK, I have become more political in my views, more involved, and more “WOKE.”  As a woman of faith, I know that life and death are in the power of the tongue. As a woman of color, I know the double standard that comes with freedom of speech.

Today, social media and “fake news” seem to have surpassed the reach of traditional media. In spite of its limitations, social media has become a platform for getting voices heard. To that end, I commit to using my platforms to hold people accountable for their actions. I have joined racial justice groups and forums in hopes to educate myself and others about racism and the challenges that people of color face in the United States. Today I am more hopeful and more connected. Women of all races are rising up and raising their voices. This makes me proud to be a woman of color in the fight for racial justice and social justice.

Distracted

Distracted

Jeremiah Pennebaker
October 23, 2017

“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” -Toni Morrison

I used to love watching football every Sunday with my parents. I remember the scene well: my mom, an avid New England Patriots fan, and my father, laying claim to both the Cowboys and the Steelers– the teams who thrived during his childhood– both screaming at the TV, the living room filled with the aroma of fried food, and the surround sound pumping the voice of Al Michaels throughout the house.

Football is a sentimental pastime for me, as I’m sure that it is for many people across the country. But like many others, football has become difficult for me to watch. Since the kneeling protests by Colin Kaepernick and a multitude of other players across the NFL have started, I have been distracted from the game that I love by something larger. I can no longer watch football without being reminded of how much my life does not matter. I can’t watch football without being reminded that as a Black man in America, I only exist as a problem that needs to be solved, an animal to be muzzled and caged, a commodity to be bought, sold, and discarded.

I can no longer plug in, turn on, and tune out of the daily distraction that is racism when I watch football. I can’t watch football without thinking that people care more about a song and a piece of cloth than they do about a 12-year-old boy being gunned down for playing in the park. It has tainted the game I love. Some in the United States would rather have me pledge allegiance to the flag than the country be a nation with liberty and justice for all. It is hard for me to stomach this and simply “stick to sports.”

Football was a distraction for me, and I’m sure for many others, from the daily struggles of life. Now, it brings my lack of humanity in our society to the forefront every Sunday when I hear about people heckling those who kneel in protest or see the overt and covert racist tweets about “ungrateful athletes.” I imagine that those people are frustrated because they are also distracted from their favorite pastime. This was something that they could retreat to when they did not want to be bothered by the distraction that is the Black man begging for change outside of the subway. The distraction that is the Black girl with the funny name and big hair who “only got the job because of affirmative action”. The distraction that is the Black kid at school who keeps complaining about the confederate flags flying in the parking lot. These distractions have infiltrated the sacred space of American football. It is no longer the noncontroversial space of hard work and meritocracy that Americans viewers are used to. They’re distracted because their once colorblind consciousness has been forced to recognize that these athletes are people too. Black people. Black athletes are Black lives and their lives should matter just as much as I want mine to.

Jeff Sessions is Wrong On Crime – Again!

Jeff Sessions is Wrong On Crime – Again!

Joan Neal
May 26, 2017

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to seek the harshest penalties possible under the law for all drug crimes, he signaled he wants to send us back in time.  We tried that strategy and research has shown that it didn’t work.  Under the ‘tough on crime’ approach, during the War on Drugs in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the U.S. prison population soared and the costs of incarceration increased dramatically.  Why, then, would we want to go back to a system that failed to lower crime levels or to make us safer?  Such a policy is clearly wrong on crime.

This order is a direct attempt to undo all of the progress the Obama Administration was attempting to make by focusing on rehabilitation of drug offenders, especially low level, non-violent offenders, and reducing the federal prison population, resulting in millions of dollars of savings in the federal budget.  In contrast, this ‘law and order’ policy will have exactly the opposite effect.  It will not stop – nor even slow down – the drug trade because it is not targeted and it will cost taxpayers more money.  ‘One-size fits all’ sentencing does not deter crime, save money, or make us safer.

But Jeff Sessions has been ‘wrong on crime’ for a long time.  As a Senator, he constantly opposed the growing congressional bi-partisan consensus on sentencing and prison reform, eventually, successfully blocking passage of any reform measure in the Senate.  Now, as Attorney General, he is seeking to institutionalize his outdated, ill-conceived policies that will only prolong the injustices already inherent in the criminal justice system.

History shows that mass incarceration, overcriminalization and prison warehousing have a disproportionately negative impact on communities of color and other marginalized groups.  Having a criminal record is a one-way ticket to intergenerational poverty.  It is an obstacle to employment, housing, education, healthcare and more.  It devastates families and is a drag on the American economy.  Jeff Sessions’ orders will insure that these conditions continue.

Thankfully, proponents of criminal justice reform across the board are still fighting for common sense reforms.  Both houses of Congress have bills pending.  Just this week, Senators Patrick Leahy and Rand Paul re-introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act which is aimed at restoring judicial discretion by giving federal judges the authority to impose sentences below the mandatory minimums when appropriate.  Reforms such as this will begin to restore fairness and equity.

The U.S. has the highest prison population of any country in the world.  This is not a distinction worthy of our values and identity as a proponent of freedom and liberty.  Our union is not yet perfect but we should always be working toward that goal.  Indiscriminately locking up people for long periods of time, no matter the severity of the crime, is unjust and immoral.  Our faith teaches us that there is always the possibility of rehabilitation.  The Attorney General’s approach to fighting crime denies the right of every person to be treated with dignity and respect.  It is inefficient, ineffective and un-American and we should do everything possible to turn it around.