Category Archives: Criminal Justice

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.

Our System of Mass Incarceration: Seeing the Parallels between Black Americans and Immigrants

Our System of Mass Incarceration: Seeing the Parallels between Black Americans and Immigrants

José Arnulfo Cabrera
December 19, 2018

In the last 40 years, the incarcerated population in the United States has increased 500%. There are currently 2.2 million people in U.S. prisons and jail. We incarcerate more people than any other country in the world thanks to drug and sentencing policies that disproportionately affects people of color. According to the NAACP, the effect of this callous approach to policing is riveting: Black people are incarcerated more than five times the rate than whites, the Black women prison population is twice that of white women, and Black children represent 32% of children who are arrested.  Then upon release, returning citizens face a myriad of obstacles that impede reintegration: employment background checks, low wages, and lack of affordable housing, coupled with banishment from government-sponsored safety net programs. For people of color, an encounter with the penal system could be its own death sentence. This is not how we as a country ought to be leading.

Yet, it doesn’t look like the U.S. will lose its standing as the world leader in mass incarceration with the presidency of Donald Trump, who campaigned as the “Law and Order” candidate.  Since Trump took office, a new Jim Crow 3.0 has emerged: the criminalization of undocumented immigrants. Undocumented Immigrants are considered criminals because they committed a misdemeanor crime, the equivalent to running a red light, for staying, or entering the U.S. without documentation. Under President’s Trump’s administration 448,000 undocumented immigrants have been returned or removed and includes those with and without prior convictions. Because President Obama’s DACA policy gave prosecutorial discretion to immigration judges, there are no records available for undocumented immigrants without prior convictions.

As a Government Relations associate responsible for managing a legislative portfolio that includes both immigration and criminal justice reform policy, I find it dangerously easy to spot the similar tactics used to criminalize immigrants and Black Americans. During Trump’s presidential campaign he said Mexican immigrants are rapists, and that they bring drugs and crime to the U.S. This past mid-term election cycle President Trump retweeted a fear-mongering campaign ad that portrayed immigrants as dangerous criminals who we must keep out of the U.S. The video bore a notable resemblance to the 1988 Republican “Willie Horton” presidential campaign ad now infamous for the “dog-whistle” racism it employed. While I’d like to believe these fear-mongering tactics don’t work, 34,000 of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. are immigrants held in ICE facilities, and 60% of those incarcerated are people of color.

When we begin to look at how immigrants and Black Americans are incarcerated, we find another scary similarity. Since 2000, the amount of people incarcerated in private prisons has increased by 47% and the amount of immigrants held in private facilities has increased 442% since 2002. The corporations that manage these prisons and detention facilities are GEO Group, Core Civic, and Management and Training Corporation, which require the states in which they are located to arrest and imprison a center amount of people in their prison to make a profit. Because of this practice, it is in their best interests that the U.S. incarceration and detention rate does not decline. Additionally, the prisons owned by these corporations are almost always located in the middle of nowhere, making it difficult for the families and lawyers of incarcerated people to visit them. These tactics are used to make it harder for people of color to seek the justice they deserve.

The United States has created a system that values incarcerating individuals more than helping them return to their communities to be self-sufficient and contribute to society as we all do. Our country views a criminal as people who have always been bad, and will continue to be bad. But the only true evil in this system is mass incarceration.

 

(feature image courtesy of the California Innocence Project)

What to Look Out for in Lame Duck!

What to Look Out for in Lame Duck!

NETWORK Government Relations Team
November 5, 2018

The Midterm Elections are upon us — and NETWORK is busy looking ahead to the work that must be done for the rest of the year.

Members of Congress will arrive back to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, November 13 to finish out the final legislative efforts for the 115th Congress. There are some time-sensitive issues Congress must address, as well as others that may be considered if there is time and political will. All the items on the agenda will be affected by two factors: the outcome of Tuesday’s election as well as subsequent leadership elections, especially in the House of Representatives.

With these uncertainties in mind, here is NETWORK’s analysis for upcoming issues in the final days of the 115th Congress.

Must Do: Fund the Government for 2019

Appropriations: Congress outperformed all expectations by passing 7 of the 12 appropriations bills for FY2019 before the start of the fiscal year, which began on October 1.  While kudos are in order, NETWORK is urging them to pick-up where they left off as soon as they return and it’s imperative that they finish the job before the end of the year.  Lawmakers have until December 7th to reach agreement on the 5 remaining spending bills which fund programs at more than 10 federal agencies, or risk a government shutdown.  Several of our Mend the Gap issues are among the log-jam.  These include: programs that fund the 2020 census, affordable housing and keep immigrant families together.

Border Wall

The most contentious issue will be funding for the Department of Homeland Security; which President Trump has already threatened a government shutdown if Congress fails to appropriate roughly $5 billion for his border wall.  A government shut-down would be detrimental just weeks before Christmas and would coincide with the anticipated arrival of thousands of migrants trekking toward the Southern border.  NETWORK has joined hundreds of advocacy organizations in calling for Congress freeze spending at FY 2018 levels for immigration enforcement officers, agents and detention beds.   And we urge Congress to pass a separate short-term extension for the Department of Homeland Security.  NETWORK is ready to kick our advocacy efforts into high-gear if we perceive threats around funding for our immigration and census priorities.

2020 Census

Funding for the Census Bureau, which requires a significant ramp-up for Census 2020 preparations and planning.   If Congress returns to the dysfunction we saw last year with repeated funding delays via Continuing Resolutions, it could seriously threaten the ramp-up and preparations for our government’s largest peacetime undertaking, the decennial.  Fiscal Year 2019 is the pivotal year leading up to the 2020 Census so postponing full funding would have dire consequences on the preparations and outcome of the count.  While the proposed funding levels from the Senate and the House seem acceptable, it is unclear what the budget impact would be on the impending court ruling on the controversial citizenship question.

Click here to read more about NETWORK’s FY 2019 appropriations priorities.

That being said, there are some outstanding “Maybe” issues that Congress could address: the Farm Bill, Criminal Justice, and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit.

Farm Bill: Protect SNAP

There has not been much apparent progress since the Farm Bill moved into conference in August.  One of the primary sticking points in negotiations is the nutrition title and reauthorization of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  The partisan House Bill—which passed by 2 votes on the second try—includes harmful provisions that would undermine the program’s effectiveness and cut nutrition assistance for millions of Americans.  The Senate bill, which saw the strongest bipartisan support of any prior Farm Bill (86-11), makes key improvements to strengthen SNAP without threatening food security of participants.  The 2014 Farm Bill expired this month but, fortunately major programs like SNAP have a funding cushion that minimizes the impact of Congress missing that deadline.  It’s highly likely, though, that the Farm Bill conference committee will kick into high gear when Congress returns on November 13th.  During Lame Duck NETWORK will need your help to ensure that the nutrition title from the Senate bill is what’s ultimately adopted and voted into law.

Criminal Justice

There is wide speculation that the Senate could join the House and take up a modest criminal justice reform package during the Lame Duck session, if 60 Senators agree to proceed.  In May, the House passed the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill purporting to be a significant step forward in prison reform.  Over the summer the President tentatively agreed to include several sentencing reform elements into a prison reform package. The Senate was split on the issue of separating prison reform from sentencing reform but has changed course given the President’s willingness to negotiate a compromise.  While NETWORK supports sentencing and prison reform as a joint legislative package we did not take an official position on the First Step Act.

Read NETWORK’s thoughts on the First Step Act, from when it passed the House, here.

Low Income Housing Tax Credit

As Congress concludes work for the year, there is a tradition that of a small group of tax bills that are bipartisan, non-controversial and relatively inexpensive get passed.  This group of tax bills is called “extenders.”  Members of the tax writing committees are now reviewing what their priorities are for any extender bill.  One of the tax initiatives under consideration is passage of “The Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act of 2017” (S. 548) which expands the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) to meet the housing needs of extremely low income renter households. This credit is the primary tool to encourage private investment in affordable housing development and is responsible for 90 percent of all affordable housing developments built each year.  Since it was passed in the bipartisan Tax Reform Act of 1986, the credit has incentivized the creation of 3 million affordable rental homes around the country.  NETWORK will work with

Given the national shortage of affordable housing, NETWORK believes it is critical that new build more low income housing units. Passage of this bill will go a long way to meeting the needs of the homeless and other vulnerable low income individuals and families.

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.