Lent — A time to set the prisoners free

As we are now in a time of Lent leading us to Easter Sunday it is right for us to reflect not only on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but his life and ministry as well. As we do, we recall that Jesus’ ministry began with the powerful words of the prophet Isaiah quoted in part, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me … to proclaim release to the captives and … to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18-19).

Freedom from captivity was a vital part of Jesus’ ministry.

Freedom from captivity was a vital part of Jesus’ ministry. For those of us who claim to be recipients of Jesus’ grace we would do well to make this a vital part of our ministry as well.

We too are called to proclaim release to the captives and to set free the oppressed. This call has never been timelier as we live in the most incarcerated nation on the face of the earth.

First in mass incarceration

The United States is first in the world in mass incarceration and one of the main drivers of this systemic sin is the disastrous “War on Drugs,” 40 years of failed policies that have done little to nothing to curb drug dependence and have instead broken up families, destroyed communities and cost billions of dollars.

There are hopeful steps that we as a nation can take to extricate ourselves from our own captivity to mass incarceration.

Fortunately, just as we receive hope on Easter Sunday with Jesus’ resurrection, there are hopeful steps that we as a nation can take to extricate ourselves from our own captivity to mass incarceration. Even in the current state of polarization that our Congress seems trapped in, numerous bills have brought Democrats and Republicans together.

One crucial bill introduced last week by Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, Rev.-Utah, is the Smarter Sentencing Act. The legislation is an incremental step towards justice reform that would address the costly overcrowding crisis in the Bureau of Prisons by cutting in half the mandatory-minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses and by authorizing judicial review of cases sentenced under the old 100-to-1 crack-cocaine sentencing disparity for possible resentencing.

Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition

I chair the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, working on Capitol Hill to end mass incarceration. Our coalition comprises 40 faith organizations representing millions of people from across the theological and political spectrum.

Our coalition comprises 40 faith organizations.

One of our primary goals this year is to see sentencing reforms like those found in the Smarter Sentencing Act enacted. We are meeting with numerous House and Senate offices and we have activated our grassroots folks. The time for dramatically reducing the size of our prison population has come.

Throughout the United States, congregations dedicate countless hours to aiding, ministering alongside, and advocating for people negatively impacted by the criminal-justice system. We are gravely concerned that overly punitive mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenses passed by Congress nearly 30 years ago have disproportionately and unfairly incarcerated people of color for low-level and nonviolent offenses.

Restore fairness in U.S. justice system

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has testified before the Judiciary Committee that black and Hispanic defendants constitute the majority of people subject to mandatory-minimum sentences, and existing opportunities for relief from them are less often available to African-American defendants.

Passage of sentencing reform measures like those found in the Smarter Sentencing Act would help restore fairness in the U.S. justice system by limiting this existing racial disparity.

Therefore, my prayer this Easter is for the hearts of Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to soften and to make the passage of sending reform a priority for this year.

Could the Holy Spirit even anoint Congressional leaders “to proclaim release to the captives and … to let the oppressed go free”?

What an amazing Easter this could be.

Editor's note: Bill Mefford directs the Civil & Human Rights work area at the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society.