Testimony in support of Drug Sentencing Reform Guidelines

Jason Adkins, Executive Director, Minnesota Catholic Conference
Senate Judiciary Committee, February 22, 2016

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

Good morning. My name is Jason Adkins and I am executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference (“MCC”). MCC is the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota.

We wish to express support for the Sentencing Guidelines Commission modifications to the guidelines, as well as its proposed legislative recommendations for drug sentencing.

We believe these modifications are an important first step in a broader conversation about drug sentencing, Minnesota’s crowded prisons, and the principles that should guide our criminal justice system.

HEAL and RESTORE, not just PUNISH

Since 1991, crime rates have fallen drastically, which many attribute to the fact that, as a nation, we have imprisoned more people and imposed tougher sentences, keeping potential criminals off the streets. Undoubtedly, there is truth in the claim that higher incarceration rates have led to fewer crimes.

But there is an emerging consensus on both the political left and right that mass incarceration policies, particularly for non-violent drug offenders, are getting too expensive, at best have diminishing returns, and at worst may even be counterproductive when coupled with the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. They put people on a trajectory that will make it hard for them to return to society and not recidivate.

Punishment for criminal activity should serve three principle purposes: 1) preserving public safety and the common good; 2) restoring public order; and 3) reconciling the offender with society. In other words, our criminal justice system should promote Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Responsibility, not merely Retribution. Our criminal justice policies should not merely punish, but also heal and restore.

To be clear, dangerous criminals and those who inject disorder and cause harm to society, such as drug traffickers, should be punished appropriately—including with lengthy terms of incarceration. As a society, however, we must, over the long-term, move resources away from building more prisons and instead toward better and more effective programs aimed at crime prevention, education, rehabilitation, education efforts, substance abuse treatment, and community supervision and reintegration programs.

FIRST STEP

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission’s modifications to the guidelines are an important first step in both relieving a crowded prison system and seeking to more humanely address the challenges of a prison population affected by substance abuse, mental illness, family fragmentation, neglect, lack of education, and, perhaps most distressing, a lack of hope.

By, among other things, 1) adding a new mitigating factor for chemically dependent persons; 2) adding aggravating factors for drug dealers; 3) and reducing recommended sentences for first degree drug possession, the modifications to the guidelines seek to separate those who are chemically dependent who are seeking help from those who are bigger players in the narcotics trade.

These modifications will enhance public safety by distinguishing those in need of help from those who are true threats to society. The drug user who stops using drugs will be able to rebuild his or her life and become a productive member of society.

CONCLUSION

In closing, I want to note that Pope Francis has called a Jubilee Year of Mercy, which offers all of us, not just Catholics, an opportunity to embrace a spirit of mercy that aims to restore right relationships between persons and society. In a public policy context, mercy helps us ensure that our justice system is not merely the impersonal application of inflexible commands, but instead helps us to see how we can continually improve our laws to account for the complexity of the human condition and the realities of criminals and their victims. Hopefully, this spirt of mercy can continue to guide our policy discussions
concerning how to reform drug sentencing and address the crowded prison population.

Thank you for your consideration.