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Commentary: With 'mutual respect,' let's enact criminal justice reform

Friday, February 12, 2016
Chicago Tribune
by Sally Dyck



Seven months into a crippling budget stalemate, Gov.Bruce Raunercalled for lawmakers to employ "mutual respect" in his State of the State address.

Rauner's request is long overdue. Springfield is hardly known for mutual respect or amicable cooperation by either party. And the United States Congress isn't much better. But there is a moment of cooperation now as leaders from across the political spectrum come together to reform the criminal justice system — vital reforms that we need now in Illinois and across the country. To miss this window of opportunity would be a costly mistake.

Police misconduct and excessive force must be vigorously rooted out. Quality representation must be available to all defendants facing criminal charges regardless of their ability to pay. Juries and prosecutors must not be tainted by racial stereotypes, and fairness must take precedence over a desire for vengeance. Moreover, sentences must be proportional, conditions of confinement must be humane, and returning to society after incarceration must allow for second chances.

It's been clear for years that America's reliance on mass incarceration to solve a multitude of social ills has failed us. Yet current sentencing policies have demonstrably added to the nation's burden, condemning young people to years behind bars, shattering families and communities and costing Americans $80 billion a year. In Illinois alone, more than $1.4 billion was budgeted in fiscal year 2015 to run the state's Department of Corrections. One study even found that between 2005 and 2009, $2.4 million in state money went to incarcerating people from a single block in Chicago's Austin neighborhood.

As bishops in Chicago, far too many of the communities we serve bear the devastating repercussions of mass incarceration: increased poverty, fundamental insecurity, generations paying the price of one person's mistake and a deep sense of alienation from the very system meant to protect and serve all citizens. Ultimately this comes at a real cost to all Americans, as we are robbed of the potential that millions of people have to contribute to building a stronger country.

Many states have already taken steps to revamp their own sentencing policies. For example in Illinois, Rauner convened the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform to chart a path forward to reduce the state's current prison population by 25 percent by the year 2025.

While we welcome and applaud what Illinois and other states are doing, we believe it's also incumbent upon the federal government to lead the nation in ensuring proportional and equitable accountability for all people in the criminal justice system.

We are encouraged by developments such as the coalescing on Capitol Hill around bipartisan solutions to unjust prison sentences like the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would overhaul excessive sentences for low-level crimes, introduce more judicial decision making and lay the groundwork for programs that prepare prisoners for successful reintegration into their home communities and, equally important, cut down on recidivism. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., like many of his Republican and Democratic colleagues, has sponsored the bill. We hope Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., will do the same.

Rather than perpetuate the devastation of our criminal justice system, Americans across the board have come to understand that we must work together in "mutual respect" to reform policies that are morally indefensible, and seek genuine justice for all of our neighbors. It is past time for our elected leaders to make criminal justice reform a reality.

The Rev. Sally Dyck is the bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church. The Rev. Wayne N. Miller is bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Rt.Rev. John Richard Bryant is senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Rt.Rev. Jeffrey D. Lee is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago.

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