Category Archives: Criminal Justice

The Tragic Killing of Tyre Nichols Must Lead to Police Reform

The Tragic Killing of Tyre Nichols Must Lead to Police Reform

The Tragic Killing of Tyre Nichols Must Lead to Police Reform

Min. Christian S. Watkins, Government Relations Advocate and Elissa Hackerson, Digital Communications Coordinator
February 1, 2023

“Our country has mishandled public safety challenges with racist policies and practices that have made us all less safe and secure, like: hyper-militarized law enforcement of Black and Brown neighborhoods, overly aggressive — and sometimes deadly — policing tactics…”

‐No More Unsafe Policing Bills. It’s Time For Data-Driven Public Safety Solutions (August 2022)

Tyre Nichols from Memphis, Tennessee should be working a shift at FedEx, eating a meal at his mother’s table, or editing pictures for his online photography website, but his life was stolen by those sworn to protect and serve. Memphis police officers brutally beat Tyre so severely on January 7 that they caused organ failure and cardiac arrest. His death three days later led to the arrest of five Memphis police officers who face multiple charge,s including second degree murder. An additional two police officers have been suspended, and three Memphis Fire Department personnel have been fired for their failure to provide care to Tyre. This is not enough. Policies and practices that prevent law enforcement nationwide from using brutal force to subdue, and kill, unarmed Black bodies are needed now!  

The death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black father, son, and brother, has rocked our nation. His beaten body laying lifeless in the street after a traffic stop is evidence that the United States needs drastic policing reform. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, and the others we call by name because of police violence — and the blessed souls whose names we don’t know — should have been cause for reform. People of faith, and all those with an interest in justice and the common good, recognize that interactions with police, especially a non-violent traffic stop, should not leave a man dead. In Memphis, where about 65% of the population is Black, there has been tension between Black people and the police who have who have behaved as predators, not public safety officers for decades.

Tyre’s death by heinous law enforcement violence once again focuses the national spotlight on the danger Black lives face when confronted by police power. In a recent statement, the National Black Sisters’ Conference (NBSC) asks, “How will this modern-day Black genocide be eradicated? Where do we go from here?” For the NBSC, the solution lies in comprehensive action from Congress, the Department of Justice, and local and state law enforcement agencies.

We join the call for action that NBSC proposes. The tragic murder of Tyre Nichols must lead to police reform in our country.

Tyre Nichols Lived a Thriving Life

We are inspired by the stories shared by friends and family that reveal his passion for life, the joy he felt for the natural world, and his compassion and humanity. Tyre was over six feet tall and loved to eat his mother’s cooking, though he was underweight at about 145 pounds due to Crohns disease. He grew up in Sacramento, California guided by a free spirit that drew him to skateboarding and youth groups, and the communities that existed around his passions. A childhood friend said, “Every church knew him; every youth group knew him.” In California and Tennessee, people shared that he exuded a special light and was a kind soul. And he was fiercely loved by family, especially his mother, RowVaughn Wells.

Tyre lived with his parents in a modest single-family home in a peaceful Black community. The police who detained him claimed he was driving recklessly in the area leading into his neighborhood. The abuse he suffered by an overly aggressive police officer who used a taser on him despite his efforts to comply with their orders, caused him to flee toward safety. Officers pursued him and savagely attacked him. Tyre Nichols’ thriving life neared its end within earshot of his mother’s home as police, emergency medical technicians, and a firefighter neglected to tend to the trauma he endured just three doors down from her home.

Tyre should be alive today. He should be at his regular Starbucks meet up with friends., He should be in his happy place — skateboarding at Tobey Skate Park and taking pictures of the sunsets he loved. You can see Tyre’s photography here. No traffic stop should end in execution. Tyre Nichols’ life mattered.

We Are Called to Reform Racist Violence, Policies, and Practices

NETWORK’s Build Anew agenda envisions reform to our criminal legal system. Our communities are not helped, but harmed, by military weapons recycled for street use by law enforcement. Violence eclipses the freedom to thrive that all families, men, and women should have in their neighborhoods. We resolve to grieve with purpose and educate all in our political ministry to advocate for the end of dangerous police powers, which has a long history in the United States.

Whether we drive through communities of expensive homes, public housing apartments, or modest single-family communities (like the one in which Tyre lived), we expect to reach our destination safely — even when we interact with police – no matter the color of our skin. Far too often, Black and Brown lives are traumatized by public safety officers who fail to see humanity in Black bodies and inflict harm, and even death.

We know our communities will be safer without militarized police units and the continuation of qualified immunity, but some leaders equate public safety with “tough on crime” police policies and procedures based on racist ideas about Black and Brown bodies. Those who want vengeance, and not justice, point out that more white people are killed by police than Black people. While this is true, the rate at which Black people die at the hands of police is more than double that of whites.

Statistic: Rate of fatal police shootings in the United States from 2015 to December 2022, by ethnicity (per million of the population per year) | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

White and well-resourced people of all races gladly cede outsized powers to the police as they carry on with violence and intimidation in Black and Brown communities. But, they would surely balk if chokeholds, excessive taser use, and other overly-aggressive tactics for traffic stops were to happen in their communities.

Last summer, we wrote that hyper-militarized law enforcement can be overly aggressive, and their deadly tactics can harm families and communities. The Memphis police officers who violently attacked Tyre were members of the SCORPION (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods) unit. SCORPION was created in November 2021 with a mandate to control rising crime in Memphis, and its tactics sadly fit this description. We must end violent policing and make our country a place where our rights are respected and where every one of us can live full and healthy lives.

Building Anew So Everyone Can Thrive

Justice-seekers guided by faith and the common good can do something about the shameful policy policies that must be reformed. We can push Congress to preserve law and order and respect the life and dignity given to us by Our Creator.

After the horrific death of George Floyd in May 2020, calls for justice were heard across our country. Since then, however, the litany of names of those whose lives were taken by police violence, most recently Anthony Lowe Jr. in southern California, have failed to move our country to action. Over the past three years, Congress has not reached agreement on a bill that would protect Black lives and put us on a path to end brutal deaths by law enforcement.

The House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, but it failed to pass the Senate during the 117th Congress. While no-knock law enforcement warrants, chokeholds, and other reforms were considered, the Senate could not come to an agreement, in large part because of qualified immunity. There are better, data-driven ways of assuring public safety in the United States. Lawmakers must act to remove military-grade weapons from local law enforcement departments, to train law enforcement with a national standard for appropriate apprehension, restraint, and care for detainees, and to end the policy of qualified immunity, which has shielded police from being held accountable for their actions. Present and future generations depend on community-oriented practices becoming the standard.

We know you, like all of us at NETWORK, grieve with RowVaughn and her family. While she navigates the path to justice for her son, join us as we urge Congress to act to end racist and inhumane policing tactics. We hold Tyre close to our hearts as we continue to hold all who have lost their lives because of racist police violence.

The National Black Sisters’ Conference Calls for “Justice for Tyre!”

The National Black Sisters’ Conference Calls for “Justice for Tyre!”

Mary J. Novak and Joan F. Neal
January 31, 2023

On January 30, the National Black Sisters’ Conference (NBSC) published a powerful statement addressing the murder of 29-year old Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers. We join the NBSC in grieving the loss of Tyre Nichols’ life and calling for the immediate passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and reforms to policing at all levels.

Read the National Black Sisters’ Conference Statement on the murder of Tyre Nichols:

Iowa Advocates Call on Senator Grassley to Support EQUAL Act

Iowa Advocates Urge Senator Grassley to Support EQUAL Act

Minister Christian S. Watkins
December 14, 2022

The Senate recently joined the house in passing the FY2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Unfortunately, the final NDAA legislation failed to include the EQUAL Act (S.79/H.R.1693); a key NETWORK priority we had hoped would be included and passed as a part of that larger bill.

With bipartisan and bicameral support, NETWORK strongly supports the EQUAL Act’s much needed reforms to eliminate the disparity in sentencing for cocaine offenses, a major contributor to mass incarceration. Local Op-eds and even the New York Times Editorial Board are also calling for Senator Grassley and Congress to pass this legislation to ”finally dismantle the nation’s failed war on drugs.”

There is still time for Congress to pass the EQUAL Act, but it has to happen before the end of the year. Now is the time for Congress to act, uplifting human dignity by ensuring sentencing equity in our nation.

Winning Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley’s support for the EQUAL Act is key to securing its passage, because of his position as ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Therefore, after the Senate failed to pass the EQUAL Act via the NDAA, NETWORK delivered a letter to Senator Grassley signed by nearly 130 Iowans, including 45 Catholic Sisters, expressing strong support for the EQUAL Act. The letter urges Senator Grassley and the Senate to pass this critical bill and other criminal justice reforms before the end of this year:

“As people of faith, we cannot continue to tolerate racial profiling, police brutality, the loss of future generations to mass incarceration, or the perpetuation of poverty. We affirm the truth that every person is entitled to dignity and equitable justice under law.”

Help us spread the word about this important and urgent legislation and urge Senator Grassley to support the EQUAL Act!

Advent 2022: Better Neighbors Set the Oppressed Free

NETWORK Lobby offers Advent reflections

Advent 2022: Better Neighbors Set The Oppressed Free

Min. Christian Watkins
December 5, 2022

Reflection:

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims the words of the prophet Isaiah and in doing so, makes very clear why he’s been sent among us:

“…to proclaim liberty to captives and to set the oppressed free…”

During Advent, as we prepare to welcome him with the observance of Christmas, these words should challenge us still. If Jesus is sent to proclaim liberty to people in captivity and freedom for those oppressed, how can we claim that he is with us in the U.S. today?

In a culture that seeks to denigrate and ignore entire groups of people, including the elderly and the sick, the U.S. holds some especially dubious distinctions when it comes to incarcerated people. With over 2 million of our people in prisons, the U.S. is the most incarcerated country in the world – not only in raw numbers of people behind bars but also our incarceration rate (639 per 100,000 people, according to the World Prison Brief).

Is this really the land of the free?

It’s even worse when race is taken into account. Despite being only 12 percent of the adult population, Black people account for over a third of those incarcerated in the U.S. That number climbs to over half when Black and Latinx people are counted together. The horrible combination of overly punitive drug policy, excessive sentencing, and the use of for-profit prisons makes for, in many ways, a form of legal slavery. It’s so bad that reform of the U.S. criminal legal system actually enjoys some bipartisan support.

Emmanuel means “God with us,” so for us to gather near to Jesus this Christmas season, we should remember the “with us” that Jesus himself said he came to proclaim his Good News to. Jesus is our melaninated Savior from the southern part of Jerusalem who was unjustly imprisoned shortly before having his life snuffed out in a shameful, public, state-sponsored execution. However, as his followers comprise the Body of Christ still in the world today, we can cooperate in his saving work by helping bring “liberty to captives and freedom from oppression.

Call to Action:

The EQUAL Act is bipartisan legislation that seeks to eliminate the disparity in sentencing for cocaine offenses, a major contributor to mass incarceration. It would apply retroactively to those already convicted or sentenced. As people of faith, we cannot continue to tolerate racial profiling, brutality and hyper-militarization in policing, the loss of future generations to mass incarceration, or the perpetuation of poverty. We affirm the truth that every person is entitled to dignity and equitable justice under law.

Help us ensure that the EQUAL Act is included in the Senate’s must-pass legislation by the end of this year.

Eliminate Unjust Sentencing Disparities and Build Anew

The EQUAL Act Has a Fighting Chance

The EQUAL Act Has a Fighting Chance

Min. Christian S. Watkins
November 18, 2022

Eliminate Unjust Sentencing Disparities and Build AnewOver the past two years, the NETWORK community has worked to advance legislation that would reform the criminal legal system for our first and second annual Lobby Days, with the goal of doing our part to end the injustice of mass incarceration.

Now, after much effort, the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law, better known as the EQUAL Act, finally has an opportunity to pass in the Senate. The EQUAL Act is bipartisan legislation that seeks to eliminate the disparity in sentencing for cocaine offenses, a major contributor to mass incarceration. It would apply retroactively to those already convicted or sentenced. The difference between success and failure is dependent on NETWORK and our partners making a joyful noise in support of the EQUAL Act.  

The original EQUAL Act was introduced in the House on March 9, 2021 by Representatives Hakeem Jeffries, Kelly Armstrong, Bobby Scott, and Don Bacon and in the Senate on January 28, 2021 by Senators Cory Booker and Dick Durbin. The House passed the bill on September 28, 2021. However, the Senate Judiciary Committee failed to take it up for consideration. The lead Senate sponsors were not satisfied with the bill dying in Committee, so they and Rep. Jeffries inserted the EQUAL Act into a piece of must-pass legislation, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).   

Now, categorically, NETWORK does not support the NDAA. Congress passes the NDAA every year to set guidelines and priorities for defense policy, make organizational changes to the Department of Defense (DoD) and other interrelated agencies, and provide guidance on how military funding can be spent among other things. Year after year, mandatory military funding has proven that exponentially increased military spending has been detrimental to our nation, and its passage has often been the bane of justice advocates and peace seekers nationwide. Instead of Congress pursuing bold reforms to defense spending, the annual passage of ever-increasing funding to the DoD in the NDAA has locked us in an unsustainable cycle that leaves other legislative priorities without adequate financial support, and left only crumbs for disenfranchised and disinvested communities of color.

Despite our disagreements with it, the NDAA will pass with broad bipartisan support this year, as it does every year. At this point, as we near the end of the 117th Congress, it is also the only bill that can carry the EQUAL Act over the finish line.

In the pursuit of justice, we applauded the House sponsors of the EQUAL Act for adding its provisions into this year’s NDAA in an attempt to secure its passage. Unfortunately, Senator Chuck Grassley—the ranking Republican member of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee—has maintained his disapproval of the EQUAL Act by thwarting its advancement to the Senate floor. In fact, he has submitted his own, less than equitable and considerably problematic alternative into the NDAA among other amendments counterproductive to eliminating injustice and racial disparity.  

Senator Grassley has a history of supporting criminal legal system reforms. In the late 1990s, he launched a successful statewide initiative to address Iowa’s drug addiction problems at the grassroots community level. Now is the time to tell Senator Grassley that we need to accept the evidence-based need for the EQUAL Act to be passed, now, together. We need this racially equitable bill and nothing short of it. 

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. 

As people of faith, we cannot continue to tolerate racial profiling, brutality and hyper-militarization in policing, the loss of future generations to mass incarceration, or the perpetuation of poverty. We affirm the truth that every person is entitled to dignity and equitable justice under law. As the 117th Congress comes to a close after two years of hard-fought progress and arduous midterm elections, this one-of-a-kind legislation is much needed in order for our nation to be as liberatory and equitable as it is on paper. Now is the time for the Senate to follow the House in taking a firm stance against racism embedded within the criminal legal system by assuring the EQUAL Act is kept in the Senate’s FY 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. 

If you live in Iowa, Add Your Name: Tell Senator Grassley to Support Fixing Racist Sentencing Disparities!

*If you know more Iowans to share this letter with, email the letter to them or post on Twitter or Facebook

Policing Bills Must Be Data-Driven Public Safety Solutions

The Time is Now for Data-Driven Public Safety Solutions

No More Unsafe Policing Bills. It’s Time For Data-Driven Public Safety Solutions

Min. Christian S. Watkins, Government Relations Advocate
August 30, 2022

We know what keeps us safe: environments where people of every color and background have fair wages, great schools, and affordable healthcare. When there are problems in our communities, they are addressed with proven solutions like social supports, investments in built design, increased educational opportunities, and housing equity. However, our country has mishandled public safety challenges with racist policies and practices that have made us all less safe and secure, like: hyper-militarized law enforcement of Black and Brown neighborhoods, overly aggressive — and sometimes deadly — policing tactics, mass incarceration, insufficient economic development, qualified immunity to shield bad police behavior, and tough-on-crime legislation.

Instead of taking responsibility for their failures, certain politicians want to divide and distract us by pointing the finger at the people and communities affected by the criminal legal system that they engineered to fracture our society. They draft bills with catchy, ‘get tough’ names, but negatively impact all of us — whether we are directly targeted or not. Two such bills, H.R.6448/S.3860 and H.R.6375/S.4287, are coming up for consideration this fall. NETWORK and our coalition partners strongly call for Members of Congress to vote against these proposed measures.

Policing Bill # Name and Sponsor Why They Are Harmful
H.R.6448/S 3860 Invest to Protect Act of 2022 (Sponsor Rep. Josh Gottheimer [D-NJ-5]) These bills would flood our streets with an additional 100,000 police officers, increase funding by $1B per year over five years, and increase the amount of surveillance and other relative equipment—further harming already marginalized communities.

Police bureaucracy would expand without concrete accountability measures. This further entrenches disrespect for our fundamental freedoms.

These bills would completely fail to adequately address the policies and practices at the root of community violence. Moreover, the holistic, evidence-based safety programs that have been proven (with research and data) to help our communities thrive, are not included.

H.R.6375/S 4287 COPS on the Beat Grant Program Reauthorization and Parity Act of 2022 (Sponsor Rep. Tom Rice [R-SC-7])

 

NETWORK is in coalition with a group of social justice and civil rights organizations that have issued a formal letter to House Leadership requesting that they not advance these bills. Read the letter here.

The most impacted people, of course, are those caught up in a criminal legal system primarily focused on harsh and inequitable punishment and lengthy incarceration (rather than rehabilitation and reintegration into society). But those of us on the outside looking in are harmed, too. We are conditioned to believe (consciously or subconsciously) that impacted people are the reason why their communities are unsafe. Bills like these, which racialize and vilify large swaths of people, often go unseen as a culprit in making life miserable.

In thinking this way, we not only fail to see how the laws are designed to impact a certain group of people; but we also devalue the diverse humanity and unique beauty that God bestows on all of Creation.

Law enforcement and elected officials use communities in distress as political pawns to appease and appeal to their voter bases. They signal that they are tough-on-crime by suppressing individual freedoms with policy that brings about outsized police interference. Isn’t this in conflict with the ideals of our Democratic Republic? I know that it is out of step with our sacred scriptures.

Advocate for Public Safety Strategies, Against Tough on Crime Legislation

All of us–Black or white, rich or poor, or republican or democrat–should live in safe and secure neighborhoods. People living in troubled neighborhoods that have obstacles to thriving lives because of racist economic policies and practices, should not be targeted for an outsized police presence. They don’t need more weapons. The deserve proven, safer, and life affirming strategies. Politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to promote tough-on-crime tactics to appease the electorate. What else can you do to help?

  • For decades, police have been allocated substantial funding without being held to concrete accountability measures. Let Congress know there can be no more bills like this.
  • Too often, citizens with mental health issues are incarcerated instead given proper medical treatment. Let Congress know this has to stop.
  • We’ve waged a war on drugs and have been tough on crime without results that keep people and communities free and safe. Let Congress know that policing bills must be rooted in public health and based on evidence-based investments – not on the rhetoric they think voters want to hear
  • Be an advocate for legislation that values the humanity of everyone in all of our communities, like these proposed in the House. NETWORK will let you know when it’s time to take action with a call or email to the House:
Evidence Proves Legislators Tough On Crime Police Measures Harm Our Communities and Don’t Keep Us Safe

Our country serves as the model of democracy around the globe, but sadly, our incarceration rate of 629 people per 100,000 means our country has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The U.S. rose to the top of this disturbing chart over the past four decades because of the proliferation of biased and ineffective tough-on-crime legislation. As the Sentencing Project reports, presently, there are two million people in the nation’s prisons and jails — a 500% increase over the last 40 years. Changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explain most of this increase. Friends, think about this carefully: U.S. policing policy has driven the country to claim nearly 25% of the world’s total prison population but has failed to significantly reduce crime in our communities. What does this mean?

Despite what politicians and police tell you about the effectiveness of their tactics, decades of data has shown that ‘get tough’ policies have not made us safer. There is little correlation between high rates of ‘violent crime’ and incarceration rates and research from the Pew Charitable Trust dispels the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug misuse, distribution, and other drug-law violations. I applaud Pews suggestion to policymakers: pursue research-based alternative strategies that work better and cost less. But, there’s more than the proper allocations of resources to consider.


Black lives hang precariously in danger because of the police. Among Black Americans, the rate of fatal police shootings between 2015 and August 2022 stood at 40 per million of the population, while for white Americans, the rate stood at 16 fatal police shootings per million of the population.

Dig Deeper: How did we get here?

Much of the carceral trauma inflicted on people and communities in modern times came after the passage of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (the crime bill). The legislation was passed with bipartisan support, in large part, to help Democrats appear tough-on-crime. Data leading up to the crime bill showed that people in urban areas needed employment opportunities and education, but Congress responded with jails and military grade weapons on our streets (How to Be An Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi, 2019).

Even before the crime bill inflicted harm with racially biased policing and mandatory drug sentencing guidelines, state and federal authorities waged 13 years of ‘get tough’ policies across the country that emphasized the use of incarceration for more offenders for longer periodsbut did not reduce the crime rate. And before that time period, a trio of U.S. presidents squarely aimed unjust crime policy at Black and Brown people.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared that stronger law enforcement was needed to curb drug abuse. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared war on crime. Both policies sought to vilify the marginalized and addicted, not safeguard public welfare with policies that reflected mercy and justice as God calls for (Zechariah 7:9-10).

in 1971, President Richard Nixon’s used racial abuse as the basis of criminal legal system policy. This may have been suspected at the time, but it wasn’t until years later that his phony ‘War on Drugs’ was revealed as a political strategy designed to demonize political enemies.

We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did. (John Erlichmann, former Nixon domestic policy advisor, Harper Magazine).

Evidence Based Public Policy Legislation Is Vital to the Build Anew Agenda

NETWORK’s Build Anew agenda seeks a country where all people enjoy freedoms and thrive in God’s economy. Any bill that sprouts in the shadow of the 1994 Crime Bill violates our Spirited call for justice and equity.

We can’t be fooled into thinking that the same old policy is going to fix our policing and criminal legal system problems. NETWORK calls on Congress to stop the cycle of police funding bills that don’t work. Instead, advance policies rooted in public health and in evidence-based investments that will truly keep people safe. We know what keeps us safe. Together, we will make this a place where our rights are respected and where every one of us can live full and healthy lives, with no exceptions.

Links from this blog to read and share with your friends and family

NETWORK Advocates Participate in Lobby Day 2022

Justice-seekers Urge Congress to Make Sentencing Reforms

Catherine Gillette
July 13, 2021

94 NETWORK advocates from 14 states visited Senate offices at this year’s Virtual Lobby Day.  They engaged staff on their desire to have criminal legal reform bills, with special emphasis on sentencing reform. For their political ministry work, the advocates received training and briefs from NETWORK’s Grassroots Mobilization and Government Relations teams  in areas like:

Lobby Day Spotlight: The New York Team

The New York advocates were the largest group to participate.  The citizen lobbyists were organized by New York NETWORK Advocates Team Lead Jane S.B. who took the lead in coordinating and leading the lobby visits.  Other NY advocates included:

Danielle B., Faith C., Peter C., Marie C., Carol D., Catherine D., Virginia F., Mary H., Lois H., Bill H., Beth L., Serena L., Susan M., Jennifer .P., Jane S.B., Phyllis T., and Helen W.

The NY delegation also included NY-based NETWORK Partners: John Alexander (Voting and Anti-Racism Committee of Sisters of Charity JPIC office); Marina Fainchiled (Freedom Unshackled Coalition), Gloria Lavine (Elder at Prince’s Bay Refomed Church and Staten Island Council of Churches), Roni Minter (Founder of Freedom Unshackled and Sistas Healing Old Wounds), Dr. Cris Mogenson (Chaplain, Broome County Jail, Binghamton), Elder Chibueze Okorie (Minister of Evangelism and Director of Project Connect), Gary Van Kennen (President of NY State Council of Churches and member of Kairos Prison Ministries).

View Senate offices NETWORK’s citizen advocates visited. Are you interested in lobbying your Congressperson? Join Us!

Eliminate Unjust Sentencing Disparities and Build Anew

We Can Eliminate Unjust Sentencing Disparities and Build Anew

We Can Eliminate Unjust Sentencing Disparities and Build Anew

NETWORK affirms that every person is entitled to dignity and equal justice under the law. Since the inception of President Nixon’s 1971 War on Drugs, federal policies have perpetuated the plagues of over-criminalization, mass incarceration, and increased police militarization. Extreme sentencing measures such as mandatory minimums and “three strikes” laws have led to the U.S. having the highest percentage of incarcerated people in the world.

More pointedly, 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 drug. If we hope to Build Anew, we must dismantle systemic racism, cultivate inclusive community, root our economy in solidarity, and ultimately transform our politics.

Second Chance Month Centers Redemption and Rehabilitation

On the heels of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Biden administration commemorated the month of April as Second Chance Month. President Biden granted pardons to three people and commuted the sentences of 75 people, all of whom have made efforts to rehabilitate themselves, including through educational and vocational training or drug treatment in prison. Additionally, the Administration has taken steps to offer “meaningful socioeconomic opportunities for redemption and rehabilitation to reduce recidivism and empower formerly incarcerated persons to become productive members of society, and to reduce crime, making our communities safer.”

President Biden sent his Administration’s inaugural National Drug Control Strategy to Congress at a time when drug overdoses have taken a heartbreaking toll, claiming 106,854 lives in the most recent 12-month period.* The Strategy delivers on the call to action in President Biden’s Unity Agenda through a whole-of-government approach to beat the overdose epidemic. The strategy includes an “Incarceration to Employment” policy that fosters expanding and improving second chance opportunities for formerly incarcerated persons, advances successful reentry outcomes that make our communities safer, disrupts cycles of economic hardship, and strengthens our economy.

What Congress Can Do?

With these bold steps taken by the Biden Administration, now is prime time for Congress to continue the work of taking meaningful steps towards making justice happen for thousands of currently and formerly incarcerated persons in our nation. We can eliminate unjust sentencing disparity by passing robust legislation that lends to redemption, rehabilitation, and, reconciliation and restoration of incarcerated persons back into community as productive members of society. Some of the bipartisan bills that have passed, or are being considered by, the House of Representatives, and are currently being considered by the Senate are:

  • The EQUAL Act (S.79) eliminates the unjust sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and automatically authorizes resentencing of those previously convicted. In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created a disparity between federal penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses. The law required the same harsh penalties for the possession of one amount of crack cocaine and 100 times the same amount of powder cocaine, an inequitable handling of essentially the same drug. Decades later, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced that disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, and that reform was made retroactive in the First Step Act signed in 2018. Despite this reform, people continue to face longer sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine than for offenses involving the same amount of powder cocaine. This bill currently has a bipartisan list of 21 cosponsors and needs clean passage, acceptance of amendments would cause bill to go back to House for reconsideration.
  • The First Step Implementation Act (S.1014) is intends to cut adults’ and juveniles’ unnecessarily long federal sentences by (1) allowing courts to apply the 2018 First Step Act’s significant sentencing reform provisions to reduce sentences for those who committed their offenses prior to its enactment, (2) allowing courts to sentence below a mandatory minimum, (3) provide for sealing or expunging records of nonviolent juvenile offenses in some cases, and (4) requires the Attorney General to establish procedures to ensure only accurate criminal records are shared for employment-related purposes. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) is the newest cosponsor of the bill as of April 25th, bringing the bipartisan list of supporters to ten.
  • The Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act (S.601) ends the perverse practice of federal courts considering acquitted or dismissed charges as aggravating factors when imposing sentences for convictions. Sen. Moran Jerry (R-KA) is the newest cosponsor of the bill as of April 25, bringing the bipartisan list of supporters to ten.
  • The COVID-19 Safer Detention Act (S.312) expands eligibility of at-home supervision to additional vulnerable, low-risk elderly prisoners, and expedites releases from federal prison during the continued COVID-19 pandemic by explicitly naming COVID-19 vulnerability as a basis for compassionate release. This bill currently has a bipartisan list of 8 cosponsors.

As the Biden-Harris administration noted in their Second Chance Month fact sheet, “Advancing successful reentry outcomes makes our communities safer, disrupts cycles of economic hardship, and strengthens our economy.” Passing these laws would make meaningful movement towards justice for thousands of currently and formerly incarcerated persons in our nation.

NETWORK Lobby enthusiastically celebrates Judge Jackson's nomination to the United States Supreme Court.

NETWORK Strongly Supports Confirmation of Judge Jackson to Supreme Court

NETWORK Strongly Supports Confirmation of Judge Jackson to Supreme Court

Ahead of this week’s nomination hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, NETWORK sent a letter strongly supporting her confirmation to the Supreme Court to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin and Ranking Member Chuck Grassley.

Watch Judge Jackson’s nomination hearings here.

The letter asks Senators Durbin and Grassley to ensure a respectful, thorough, and swift confirmation process for Judge Jackson.

Judge Jackson’s work representing criminal defendants as well as her participation on the bipartisan Sentencing Commission is particularly meaningful from the Catholic tradition. As the letter explains,

The Gospels echo a sacred call proclaimed by the prophet Micah to act with both justice and mercy (Micah 6:8-9). During World Youth Day 2016, Pope Francis used the three parables in Luke Chapter 15—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son—as a model of Christian mercy, saying: “Our Lord’s mercy can be seen especially when he bends down to human misery and shows his compassion for those in need of understanding, healing and forgiveness.” Judge Jackson’s work to eliminate racial disparities in sentencing and other sentencing reforms as well as her call for robust public defense systems to ensure just, fair, and reliable outcomes demonstrate her profound regard for the humanity of defendants. This is Christian mercy in the public square.

As the Supreme Court regularly decides critical civil rights and civil liberties cases, Judge Jackson’s confirmation will lend an important perspective to the Court’s deliberations. Her more than 600 rulings reflect her dedication to being a fair-minded, even-handed jurist committed to equal justice for all. She has garnered respect and recognition across partisan and ideological lines, and received broad support from the Senate for several high-level appointments. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is undeniably qualified to serve on the highest court in the land.

Read the full text of the letter here.

Sign NETWORK’s letter to show your support for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination!

Tragedy of Amir Locke’s Death Demands Action from Our Elected Officials

Tragedy of Amir Locke’s Death Demands Action from Our Elected Officials

Min. Christian S. Watkins
February 18, 2022

On February 2, 2022, yet another Black person in the United States, 22-year-old Amir Locke, was shot and killed by the police. Amir Locke died with two wounds in the chest and one in the right wrist while lying on a couch just after 6:45 AM as Minneapolis Police Department and SWAT team members conducted a ‘no-knock’ warrant raid. Locke was not the subject of the warrant, and he should still be alive today. For how long must we wait for comprehensive policing systems reforms while Black and Brown lives lie in the wake?

This is yet another occurrence of police in the U.S. utilizing tactics that deny human dignity and sacred worth. Minneapolis was also home to George Floyd, who died while a police officer’s knee was placed on his neck for over 9 minutes, and Philando Castille, who was killed during an unwarranted traffic stop. Nationwide pleas for justice and meaningful change in the wake of Floyd and Castille’s deaths have seemingly gone unheard, unmet, unaddressed, as policing reform negotiations failed on Capitol Hill. Our elected officials on Capitol Hill and across the country must not fail to act now.

Cornell Law defines a “no-knock warrant” as, “A search warrant authorizing police officers to enter certain premises without first knocking and announcing their presence or purpose prior to entering the premises. Such warrants are issued where an entry pursuant to the knock-and-announce rule (i.e., an announcement prior to entry) would lead to the destruction of the objects for which the police are searching or would compromise the safety of the police or another individual.”

The ’no-knock’ raid that resulted in the death of Amir Locke is similar to what transpired with Breonna Taylor two years ago in Louisville, Kentucky. Ms. Taylor was an EMT who was shot and killed in her home during the execution of a no-knock warrant, of which she was not the intended focus. There is an ever-growing divide between law enforcement, local and federal government officials, and the public trust given the lack of action and transparency following so many deaths of Black people across the country at the hands of police.

Following Breonna Taylor’s death, activists have advanced  Breonna’s Law to end to the use of no-knock warrants, at the local, state, and federal level. However, more concrete steps and substantive legislation need to be enacted to make these changes real.

In solidarity with Amir’s parents, Andre Locke and Karen Wells, we ask for policing reform negotiations to resume, and for President Biden to include a federal ban on no-knock warrants as well as reforming the harmful 1033 and 1122 programs in his anticipated Executive Order on policing reform. As Democratic Senators Schatz, Wyden, Baldwin, Smith, Sanders, Brown, Van Hollen, Warren, Markey, and Casey recently wrote in a letter to President Biden, “Militarized law enforcement increases the prevalence of police violence without making our communities safer.”

A more perfect Union must establish justice in order to provide domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty that should be afforded us all. Congress and President Biden can – and must – implement these federal reforms to create a country where everyone, no matter our color, origin or gender, is safe and our human dignity is respected.