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The Human Face of the Criminal Justice Overhaul

Senate event highlights the 'human cost' of mass incarceration

Durbin, left, speaks with actress Melissa Fitzgerald of "The West Wing" before the event. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Durbin, left, speaks with actress Melissa Fitzgerald of "The West Wing" before the event. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

One man described how he got a life sentence for a low-level drug offense. A woman told how she received a 20-year sentence for drug crimes while the people who murdered her son spent less than eight years behind bars. An actor recalled how the boys he grew up with are now in prison or dead.  

Lawmakers, celebrities and former inmates Thursday gathered to highlight the personal side of a criminal justice overhaul, shortly before senators unveiled new changes to sentencing legislation.  

“We left a lot of brothers and sisters behind,” said Alton Mills , who spent 22 years in prison for distributing crack before his sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama in 2015.  

Mills was one of eight former prisoners who participated in a #JusticeReformNow panel in the Russell Senate Office Building. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., referred to Mills in his opening remarks, saying Mills’ mother personally lobbied him to push the White House to commute his sentence.  

Durbin said Mills’ case was indicative of thousands of prisoners who received severe penalties for low-level crimes, and called for lawmakers to support a criminal justice overhaul.  

“This is the best chance we have in a generation, at least in a generation, to make meaningful changes in our federal drug sentencing law,” Durbin said. “Let’s not miss this opportunity.”  

That was the message at the event hosted by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union and #Cut50.  

[Related: Banishing the Ghost of Willie Horton to Promote Criminal Justice Reform] The speakers emphasized the human cost of what they considered lengthy prison sentences that do not always fit the crimes, and pointed out that such mandatory minimum sentences disproportionately affect communities of color.  

Terrence J, an African-American actor and former host of E! News, grew up in New York City, and witnessed that affect first-hand when E! attempted to do a segment on his roots, and looked up three of his former classmates to interview.  

“Out of the three kids that were sitting next to me [in class] at the time, two of them are in jail to this day, and one of them is dead,” said Terrence. “And it really hit home because I’m sitting here, I’m the guy in L.A. in the fancy suit every day, and so many of the men that I knew, the boys that I knew growing up didn’t have that opportunity.”  

“There’s such a human cost when we throw people away and throw the key away with them,” Terence later added.  

[Related: White House Eager to Rekindle Criminal Justice Effort] Judge Patti B. Saris, who chairs the U.S. Sentencing Commission, testified during an October hearing on the sentencing bill that African-Americans constitute the highest percentage, roughly 40 percent, of drug offenders subject to mandatory minimums.  

Senators have sought to address these disparities and what they view as an unfair criminal justice system through their legislation, known as the Sentencing and Corrections Reform Act.  

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators announced additional changes to the legislation in an effort to garner more support , and eventually bring the bill to the Senate floor.  

Decreasing the prison populations could have economic benefits, according to the proponents of a criminal justice overhaul, given the high cost of maintaining prisons and additional tax base as former prisoners re-enter society. But, they argued, the personal benefits outweigh the financial ones.  

“The fact that we have husbands and fathers, sons and brothers and uncles and nephews sent away for years, often decades at a time, is unconscionable. It’s not something we should be doing,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a chief proponent of the criminal justice bill.  

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Lee said, “I’m here to tell you that as a society, to the extent we’ve allowed some of these laws to persist, we have made a mistake.”  

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