Minds meeting on criminal-justice reform

The Rev. D. Anthony Everette
The Rev. D. Anthony Everette

After watching President Barack Obama’s last State of the Union address, I think that regardless of one’s political views all can agree that he has faced significant challenges during his seven years in office.

Given the multitude of conflicts and the seemingly endless international- and domestic-policy issues that require his vigilant attention, I was pleased that he highlighted his desire to address criminal-justice reform this year.

I think I was not alone.

On Jan. 6, during a luncheon hosted by Commerce Lexington, I spoke with Sen. Mitch McConnell about the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. He acknowledged the significant support for the bill and said he expected it would be on his agenda for a floor vote in 2016.

I pray he moves the bill quickly, because its passage is too important to delay.

The legislation would ease excessive mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug offenses, incentivize rehabilitation programming in prisons, ensure second chances for people serving life without parole sentences for crimes that they committed as children or for drug offenses, and end the cruelty of solitary confinement for youth in federal custody.

The bill has already passed through the committee process. McConnell’s position as Senate majority leader makes his support for this life-changing — and life-saving — legislation critically important.

My role as a pastor that motivates my support for comprehensive criminal-justice reforms. It will not surprise most people to hear that the church cares deeply about love, mercy and forgiveness for all God’s children. But Christianity’s teachings also compel me to advocate for fairness and justice. Mass incarceration damages our country and our state, and disproportionately impacts the black and Hispanic communities in which I serve.

If current national incarceration trends continue, one out of every three black boys born today in the United States will be incarcerated during his lifetime. One out of every six Hispanic boys will encounter the same fate.

Moreover, Hispanic and black women have higher incarceration rates —1.6 and 3 times the rate of white women, respectively. These are shameful statistics that people of good will must join together to change.

In Lexington, the community is addressing the situation.

Beginning at Wesley United Methodist Church this week, Clean Slate Kentucky, a group that helps people expunge records, will host the first of several statewide expungement trainings and clinics to educate individuals who have been arrested, charged or convicted of a crime on how to clear their criminal records. These free trainings offer people with low-level offenses a second chance at life and the ability to find employment without fear of discrimination.

However, more work must be done to overcome the devastating impact of mass incarceration. The United States leads the world in imprisonment with 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, but only five percent of the population.

At the national level, harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws, particularly for low-level drug offenses, ignore important factors that contribute to a person’s criminal behavior, like mental capacity, age or history of addiction.

Federal judges are limited in considering the role of a defendant in the drug trade, and therefore, drug kingpins and street-level dealers often serve similar sentences.

I am so grateful for the political consensus that seems to be, finally, leading us down the road of enacting practical, but constructive, federal criminal justice reform.

It is a fine example of our political leaders recognizing the roots of an injustice and together working to fix it.

The Rev. D. Anthony Everett of Lexington is a United Methodist pastor and a member of Kentucky’s Human Rights Commission.