Contributed by the Rev. Carmelo Santos
“We have put a lot of people in prison who need other services and not cages,” said an instructor of a study series for adults at Hope Lutheran Church in Annandale, Virginia. “There is a place for mercy in the system. And mercy transforms people.”
The ELCA’s social statement, The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries, was the foundation of the multiple-week study which concluded on June 19, 2016. The statement, adopted by the 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, affirms fundamental principles of the U.S. criminal justice system but urges a variety of reforms, especially in sentencing policy and a decrease in the incarcerated population.
Excessive mandatory minimum sentences were discussed with Molly Gill, Director of Federal Legislative Affairs for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), who joined the class for its final session. She explained how FAMM is trying to change such sentences that mostly grew out of legislation in the 1980s as part of the war on drugs. Gill emphasized that such laws leave judges with little or no discretion in sentencing and have led to extremely long and costly prison terms for many non-violent offenders. Further, Gill said such lengthy sentences have not reduced drug use in society.
FAMM advocates an evidence-based approach to sentencing where judges can fit punishment to the individual and to the facts of each case. Gill said the system also needs more transparency so that mistakes can be fixed. She recalled that rows of cells looked like animal cages when she visited prison early in her legal career. The experience helped convince her of the need for mercy in the system and to advocate for prison reform.
“[Molly Gill] might be a wonderful resource for other congregations that might be interested in the issue,” said the Rev. Carmelo Santos, pastor of the congregation. Contact Pr. Santos with questions if you are interested in embarking upon similar study.