Jubilee Justice 2000:
a campaign for justice

By Eric Sterling, President, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation

Jubilee Justice 2000 is a campaign to educate the public about the need for sentencing reform, and ultimately to persuade the President to commute the sentences of thousands of Federal prisoners before he leaves office.

The length of sentences served by prisoners has grown astronomically. Federal parole was abolished by Congress in 1984. By the end of the year 2000 there will be 150,000 people imprisoned in the federal prison system alone, and 60% of these prisoners are serving drug sentences.

Drug sentencing is harsh.The old saying, "If you do the crime, you do the time," was based on the belief that laws were written with care and deliberation. It was also based on a legal system with built-in checks and balances. This is no longer the case and has not been the case since mandatory sentencing, passed by Congress in 1986, moved judicial sentencing discretion to federal prosecutors.

These laws were changed without advice or consultation from any agency with expertise in these legal matters. There was no input from the Drug Enforcement Agency; the Bureau of Prisons was not consulted, nor were judges or the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The result is clear; we are now immersed in a murky quagmire of so-called justice that imprisons the minor offender - a young man unloading the boat, the woman tending the door of the stash house. These commonly are the people serving 20-year federal prison sentences. Laws that promised to take drug "kingpins" out of business have filled our prisons with minor drug participants instead. In 1998 only 43 of the 20,614 people sent to federal prison were sentenced as kingpins.

People who break the law deserve to be punished, but what do we say of justice that wears a "countenance too sanguinary and cruel"? What of laws that cause more harm than any good? Drug sentences are so harsh that federal judges across the nation have called them "manifestly unjust." Once the punishment has been sufficient, further punishment is wrong.

The year 2000 is a Jubilee year. People of faith around the world are celebrating. Pilgrims are flocking to Rome, to Jerusalem and other holy sites.

"And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee to you . . ." Leviticus 25:10

"...because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor..." Isaiah 61: 1-2

Our campaign for justice begins in the spirit of Jubilee, in the interest of equity and in the importance of the election year as we debate the attributes of what constitutes a viable presidential candidate.

"The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy . . . and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States..." - U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 2, first sentence.

Jubilee Justice 2000 is not about guilt versus innocence. Jubilee Justice 2000 is about justice. Federal prisoners who have served at least 5 years for nonviolent drug law violations should be released. Before President Clinton leaves office we'll work to persuade him to commute the sentences of all non-violent federal prisoners and let them return to their families.

The campaign will educate the American people about a broken federal sentencing system and the building of a national movement to reform sentencing. It includes a national appeal to President Clinton - in the spirit of the Jubilee year - to commute the unjust sentences of thousands of people presently languishing behind bars in our federal prison system.

We appeal to clergy and religious leaders of all faiths to preach and write about this issue. We ask you to join with us to encourage our President to do what is within his power and moral obligation to do.

In addition, Jubilee Justice 2000 will use the election campaign and its focus on the qualities and qualifications of a President. Our Constitution designed the office of the Presidency for a person with the capacity to show mercy, who will be a last champion of justice, as well as a person with the resolution and courage to serve as Commander in Chief.

Before William Jefferson Clinton leaves office on January 20, 2001 he should establish, as part of his legacy, demonstrable acts that show he stood for justice by freeing thousands of federal prisoners sentenced unjustly.

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