Dr. Bernice A. King
CEO, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change
In 1963, while incarcerated in Birmingham, my father, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., challenged the conscience of America when he penned these words “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”My father wanted us to understand our interrelatedness in addressing social inequalities that infringe on human being’s ability to live a life of dignity.
We are closing 2018 with an opportunity to take a monumental “FIRST STEP” towards assisting and empowering the least of these in America. In the hands of our chosen servant leaders of Congress is the FIRST STEP for Criminal Justice Reform Act that begins to address some serious flaws in America’s criminal justice system.
For too long, disenfranchised populations have suffered in a punitive prison system that offers no viable pathways to reentering society. Today, over two million Americans are incarcerated in a system that does not offer the resources to bring out their intellectual and creative genius. Invariably, the world at large is impacted. Families are fractured. Children are missing out on relationships with their parents. Furthermore, the average annual cost to incarcerate prisoners is over $32,000. Prisons are draining financial resources that can be used to invest in improving families and communities. The Congressional Budget Office predicts the FIRST STEP Act would reduce the federal prison population by nearly 20% over the next decade.
The FIRST STEP Act can launch a better way to America’s criminal justice reform. While many have asserted that this bill is not comprehensive enough, to which I also agree, we must also understand that the road to progress is paved with incremental steps.
Over 60 years ago, America’s Civil Rights Movement perfectly illustrated how small legislative steps – when multiplied – paved the way to the monumental progress we have achieved in equal housing, diversity in education, wages disparities, and more. In 1948, President Truman’s Executive Order ending segregation in the military paved the way for the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, effectively ending racial segregation in public schools. In 1957, President Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Act to protect voter rights gave activists in the 1965 Selma March the legislative support needed to protest voter suppression, and prompted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Each small legislative step inspired America to become a better version of itself. Today’s FIRST STEP Act is a meaningful start for prison reform. We must not prolong justice in this hour.
The FIRST STEP Act would provide federal judges the discretion to augment sentencing guidelines when the mandatory minimum is too harsh for some criminal offenses. The FIRST STEP Act introduces a mentor program between incarcerated youth and volunteers from faith-based or community organizations. Additionally, The FIRST STEP Act will retroactively reform unfair sentencing disparities that affected 2,600 federal prisoners convicted of crack offenses before 2010.
My mother, Coretta Scott King, said, “Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.” My parents understood that justice and equality achieved in one generation can be threatened in the next. Thus, they embraced every small victory. Incremental progress served as a foundation for progress well beyond their lifetime.
We find ourselves in a climate of fear – where reaching across political party aisles in Congress could cause severe backlash that is akin to political suicide. But there comes a time when the cry for humanity stirs so deeply that even fear must adhere to its cry. When faced with political fears, my father said, “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”
Some naysayers proclaim Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will never bring this bill up for a vote, and discount his compassion for Civil Rights causes. However, in my research I learned that Senator McConnell has advocated for Civil Rights. As a law student in the 1960s he was present for the signing of the Voting Rights Bill, and was on the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 during my father’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He was so inspired that he began writing editorials advocating for others to support Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
There is more to Senator McConnell than the Kavanaugh hearings… Growing up his parents were involved in the National Urban League, so I know he understands the importance of liberty and justice for all. In 2015, Senator McConnell broke rank with other Senators and provided a pivotal vote in favor of Loretta Lynch to become the first African American woman as an Attorney General.
Our country has experienced many divisive dark days, but God’s hand has guided us through it all. The bipartisan efforts behind this bill can begin to restore hope in America for many who lost faith in Congress’ ability to ever work together again.
I implore Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the FIRST STEP Act to a vote before the close of this session.