A homeless shelter may be a refuge for those with no place to turn, but the entrance at its gate comes with a steep admission price: “Turn in your LINK card.” “Make your bed.” “Attend religious services daily.” “Stay sober.” “Be in by curfew.” At the Harm Reduction in the House 2016 conference which I attended last Friday, two young people who had experienced homelessness could quickly rattle off lists of requirements. These requirements mean that the choice to seek out a shelter or stay under the Wilson Street viaduct requires a careful cost and benefit analysis. If staying out late with friends or smoking marijuana gives you the comfort you need in the face of loss and trauma, the trade-off for four walls and a roof may not be worth it.
A powerful way to see the effects of the disastrous and misguided war on drugs is to work on a clemency petition. Tens of thousands of prisoners are warehoused in America’s prisons, serving long and sometimes life sentences for non-violent drug offenses. Thousands of federal prisoners are seeking commutations of their sentences from the only person who can grant them: the President of the United States. I have worked on two such petitions. In the process of preparing those petitions, you learn the life story of a person seeking mercy; you come to care deeply about what becomes of them; and you see up close how out of proportion the punishment often is to the drug crime. One of the petitions I worked on, sadly, was just denied. But the other has just been granted, one of 214 announced on August 3, 2016. Charlie Lawuary, age 64, was serving a natural life sentence for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. Because Charlie was alleged to have more than 50 grams of cocaine and he had two prior felony drug convictions, the life sentence was mandatory. Charlie was utterly remorseful; he felt deep shame that he had profited by addicting people. He was also completely rehabilitated and had earned a reputation as the inmate who, when a new prisoner arrived, used his own commissary money to buy needed supplies for the newcomer. Charlie has a large, supportive family eager to welcome him home. He has served 18 years of his sentence. Charlie will not get out of prison right away; the sentence will continue until August 3, 2018, and he must participate in a drug program before he can be released. But he and his family have hope now that he will not die in prison. My other prisoner–the one who was denied– too, has a close and loving family which is aching for him to return home. He has done everything possible to live an upstanding life since his conviction for his crime. He has done enough time. He should come home. So should thousands of others like him.
Eric E. Sterling is Executive Director of The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a private non-profit educational organization that helps educate the nation about criminal justice issues. He is a graduate of Haverford College, has been a Quaker for more than 40 years, and serves on the Ministry and Worship Committee of the Bethesda Friends Meeting. From 1979 until 1989, he was Counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary.
Our guest blogger, Rabbi Dr. Rachel S. Mikva, is the Herman Schaalman Chair in Jewish Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary and Director of the Center for Jewish, Christian and Islamic Studies. Suddenly there’s bipartisan enthusiasm for criminal justice reform. Forty years after liberal and conservative forces joined to restrict discretionary sentencing, thirty years after launching a futile war on drugs, twenty years after a Democratic president signed the “three strikes” law, the winds are shifting. It is still politically dangerous to be seen as soft on crime, but “smart on crime” is in. We now talk about public safety rather than law and order.
Our guest blogger is Jeanne Bishop, assistant public defender at Cook County Public Defender’s Office, adjunct professor of law at Northwestern, author of Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer (Westminster John Knox Press) and a member of Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. On February 11, 2015, newly-inaugurated Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner did a bold and widely-applauded act: he issued an executive order designed to solve a serious problem facing the State. That problem: mass incarceration.