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Written Testimony of the
National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA
Submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee
Full Committee Hearing on S.2123 The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015
October 19, 2015

The National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA expresses thanks to Chairman Grassley and Ranking Member Leahy as well as Senator Durbin, Senator Cornyn, Senator Whitehouse, Senator Lee, Senator Schumer, Senator Graham, Senator Booker, and Senator Scott and their staffs for their hard work on bringing forward this piece of compromise legislation to begin to address the problems in our criminal justice system and for the opportunity to offer our views on the legislation.

For more than 63 years the NCC has been the foremost expression of Christian unity in the United States. The NCC speaks with the voice of its 37 member denominations from Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historically African American, and Living Peace Church traditions that represent 35 million Christians in over 100,000 congregations. We seek to model unity and work together to promote God’s justice, peace, and healing for the world.

The NCC has spoken out many times in the past about the need for criminal justice reform. From our statement in 1979, “Challenges to the Injustices of the Criminal Justice System”, to today’s testimony, the NCC has consistently sought to support those unfairly targeted because of the color of their skin. Today, along with our member communions and our partners in important coalitions like the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, we see a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

The traditions represented in the NCC include broad representation from Black Methodist churches and Black Baptist churches whose members often find themselves entwined in an unjust criminal justice system by no fault of their own. Through our interaction with our brothers and sisters in these traditions, we are aware of the breadth and the depth of the system of mass incarceration that pervades the entirety of the justice system and inflicts pain and suffering on communities of color. Given the gargantuan size of the problem, we recognize that the legislation you are considering, S.2123, The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, is but a partial solution. But we also recognize it is an important first step.

NCC supports the sentencing reform measures in the bill. While we support the elimination of mandatory minimums, the reductions proposed are an important step and provide real relief to many people who were subject to these harsh and unjust sentences. We welcome amendments that would further broaden the existing safety valve and/or reduce mandatory minimums and make these reforms fully retroactive.

We do not, however, support the additional mandatory minimums proposed. Mandatory minimums apply a one size fits all approach to situations which vary widely. Justice demands that these be taken on a case by case basis and that judges be allowed to apply reasonable sentences without being hamstrung by arbitrary minimums. These new minimums are not the right way to deal with the very real problems they seek to address.

We are also pleased at the numerous reforms proposed to reentry programs, juvenile justice, and other means of recidivism reduction. The juvenile record expungement provision and provision on federal criminal record accuracy are incredibly important to returning citizens who currently face immediate barriers to rehabilitation when they return to their communities. Many run in to work restrictions that make it a struggle for them to exit poverty and increase the likelihood that they will recidivate. NCC also supports the many programs proposed to enable successful reentry.

The bill also provides much needed juvenile justice reforms, but does not go far enough. Juvenile solitary confinement must be banned. Organizations such as the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and Youth Law Center have documented the extreme harmful effects of solitary, particularly on juveniles. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez has testified before this very committee calling for an end to the torture of solitary confinement for juveniles. While we appreciate the limitations this bill places on its use, nothing short of its abolition – on federal, state, and local levels – will bring true justice to juveniles housed in correctional facilities.

We are also supportive of the idea of so-called “back end” sentence reductions through the use of programming and activities designed to rehabilitate people in prison. The risk and needs assessments are important tools to ensuring people in prison are not just warehoused and are truly given an opportunity to rehabilitate and re-enter society in a productive manner. Care must be taken, however, with ostensibly “objective” measures like prior criminal history. Many of these measures that appear objective are affected by a system that unjustly and disproportionately targets communities of color. Therefore what may seem to be fully objective remains fraught with bias because the system contains bias within it. Additional efforts are needed to purge this bias and to make these assessments even more accurate.

Even with the passage of this legislation, more will remain to be done. We continue to take seriously the mandate to preach release to the capitives and seek justice for all. We look forward to future discussions with all of you about ways we can further enhance these efforts to end mandatory minimums, end juvenile solitary confinement, and end the unjust targeting of communities of color and their mass incarceration. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 represents a good down payment on criminal justice reform and begins to push back against the tide of mass incarceration in the U.S. We urge the committee to pass it unanimously to honor the bipartisan efforts of so many.

We pledge our prayers for you and for the millions still incarcerated that the peace of God may be with them and guide them.