Post Date: July 1, 2013
Happy Fourth of July. I’m trying to drum up some genuine enthusiasm for the holiday but I keep coming up short. I mean, I’m happy we gained our independence from Great Britain and who doesn’t like a good barbeque and fireworks? In fact, I just learned that John Adams hoped we would celebrate the Declaration of Independence with fanfare. On July 3, 1776, Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail:
It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.
So, celebrating Independence Day with gusto is pretty much mandatory considering one of the founding fathers said we should. I’m trying, really. But I keep getting sidetracked by the two million people in prison in this country whose problem isn’t an English king, but American legislators who pass mandatory sentencing laws. They have no freedom at all.
I recently received a letter from an 83-year old Vietnam Vet who is taking care of his disabled wife as well as his son’s wife and four-year old daughter because his son is serving 15 years in federal prison for a marijuana conviction. His plaintive words were simple, but piercing: “I need my son at home.” His son has already served four years in prison. Will someone please tell me what benefit the country gains by keeping him there another 11 years?
As frustrated as I feel about the unbelievably long prison sentences people are serving, I know that the future is not all gloom and doom. In fact, it’s looking brighter than it has in a long time.
Voices from across the political spectrum are calling for criminal justice changes. Conservative commentator Richard Viguerie recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “…it’s not just the excessive and unwise [criminal justice] spending that offends conservative values. Prisons, for example, are harmful to prisoners and their families. Reform is, therefore, also an issue of compassion.”
Compassion has too often been absent in conversations about sentencing policy, usurped by a thirst for retribution and plain old punishment. While that is still a common refrain among policymakers, a new chorus is taking shape. States across the country are passing bills that reduce punishments for nonviolent offenders (Oregon did so this week) and in Congress the Justice Safety Valve Act that would give judges more flexibility to sentence below the mandatory minimum has been introduced in both houses. A recent New York Times editorial said the bill “deserves committee hearings and passage soon.” I agree. These are good signs that change is on its way.
I just wish it would happen quickly. I’d love to belt out “God Bless America” tomorrow, knowing that America’s sentencing flaws would soon be corrected. But we’re not there yet. We’re getting close- closer than we’ve been in the 22 years I’ve been doing this work.
And one day – not too far away – we’ll be free of the tyranny of sentencing laws imposed by out-of-touch leaders. Then I’ll burst into song on the Fourth of July.
For now, enjoy the fireworks and don’t forget those in prison.