U.S. Attorney General targets mass incarceration

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) of The United Methodist Church applauds U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s promise at the annual meeting last week of the American Bar Assn. in San Francisco to address racial disparities in the federal justice system.

A primary obstacle is the current mass incarceration that characterizes our criminal-justice system.

“As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington,” said Bill Mefford, GBCS director of Civil & Human Rights, “Attorney General Holder has reminded us that the dream articulated by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is still long from being fully realized and a primary obstacle is the current mass incarceration that characterizes our criminal-justice system.”

Attorney General Holder acknowledged the U.S. system's ineffectiveness and unsustainability, as well as the tremendous cost, both financial and social, it places on the country.

Innate racism

“The attorney general rightly recognized the innate racism in our current system with black men receiving sentences 20% longer than sentences handed down to white males for the same crimes,” Mefford said in praising Holder for declaring this situation unacceptable and shameful. A group of U.S. Attorneys has been directed by Holder to examine sentencing disparities, and to develop recommendations on how to address them.

For far too long, we have responded to the root causes of crime … with incarceration.

Driving much of this unacceptable and shameful situation is the ineffective "War on Drugs" begun in the early 1970s and that has done very little to address drug use and addiction, according to Mefford. “For far too long, we have responded to the root causes of crime — poverty, unemployment, lack of adequate education, and addiction — with incarceration,” Mefford said.

Attorney General Holder called for large-scale reforms that will make harsh and retributive punishment more reserved and less of a first option. The reforms he called for include scaling back on the use of mandatory minimum sentences, expanding compassionate release for those currently incarcerated who pose no threat to public safety, and highlighting best practices for alternatives to incarceration.

Criminal-justice system reforms

Mefford said The United Methodist Church has long called for criminal-justice system reforms, including:

  • opposing all mandatory minimum sentences;
  • increasing services for victims of crime;
  • improving indigent defense services;
  • scaling back on prosecutorial discretion; getting rid of solitary confinement; and
  • increasing funding for reentry services, particularly in the areas of housing, employment, substance abuse and mental-health treatment services.

“We believe that Scripture calls for a justice system that will serve as a balm of healing to the entire society,” Mefford said. “We pray and advocate for a criminal-justice system that brings healing to those who have been victimized, restoration for those who have committed crimes and justice for those who have been mistreated by the broken system currently in place.”

On behalf of the thousands of United Methodists engaged in ministries among the millions of people directly impacted by the broken criminal-justice system, Mefford emphasized that the United Methodist Church General Board of Church & Society stands with Attorney General Holder and is ready to assist in any way it can to ensure that these reforms, as well as other necessary reforms, are fully implemented.

The General Board of Church & Society is one of four international general program boards of The United Methodist Church. Prime responsibility of the board is to seek implementation of the Social Principles and other policy statements on Christian social concerns of the General Conference, the denomination’s highest policy-making body. The board’s primary areas of ministry are Advocacy, Education & Leadership Formation, United Nations & International Affairs, and resourcing these areas for the denomination. It has offices on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York City.

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