Letter to Congress: Mandatory Minimums

May 11, 2005

U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear Members of Congress:

On behalf of the Episcopal Church, USA we write to urge your opposition to H.R. 1279, the Gang Deterrence and Community Protection Act of 2005, legislation that includes a number of provisions that would establish or increase mandatory minimum sentences for certain criminal offenses. The concern of the Church regarding mandatory sentencing guidelines is rooted in the current racially discriminatory impact of these guidelines and other negative consequences on women and children.

The 2003 General Convention of the Episcopal Church called for the repeal of mandatory federal sentencing. We believe that judges can and should consider the unique circumstances of a defendant. The restrictive guidelines often force young offenders, defendants with no major role in criminal activity or defendants with minimal criminal records into long-term confinements devoid of any socially rehabilitative programs. Mandatory sentencing guidelines have been studied by numerous organizations and advocates who have concluded that mandatory sentences affect people of color disproportionately through more arrests for drug crimes, overall increases in the severity of drug sentences, and harsher treatment compared to white arrestees. Two-thirds of the two million Americans in jail or prison are African American or Hispanic. One in 20 African American men over the age of 18 is in state or federal prison, compared to one in 180 white men.

The Church is also concerned that women are the fastest-growing sector of the prison population. In 1997 over 34 percent of state female prisoners and nearly 72 percent of the federal female prisoners were serving drug sentences. Black women were more than eight times as likely as white women to be in prison in that same year. Alarmingly, 58.8 percent of the federal female inmates and 65.3 percent of all state female inmates had children under the age 18. An estimated 126,100 children had a mother in prison in 1999, up from 63,700 in 1991.

Finally mandatory sentencing can have a devastating impact on the children of prisoners. Millions of children in America with one or both parents in prison are often forced to endure the painful punishment of separation from their parents. Children of prisoners may be sent to live with distant relatives or put into foster care. Separated from their parents by thousands of miles, children may see them infrequently if at all.

In the time since the enactment of tougher sentencing for drug related crimes, we believe the evidence shows that mandatory sentencing has failed as a deterrent to these crimes, while at the same time creating racial inequities that damage the character of our nation. Education, drug treatment and a competent judiciary is the most just approach to reducing crime and protecting our communities. We strongly oppose H.R. 1279 and mandatory sentencing and urge this legislation’s defeat.


Maureen Shea

John B. Johnson
Domestic Policy Analyst