by Vincent Southerland, Criminal Justice Practice, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund
America is finally starting to take its first small steps on the path to curing its decades-long addiction to mass incarceration. Recently, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Eric Holder, testified before the United States Sentencing Commission and called for reductions to federal sentences for certain drug offenses. In doing so, Attorney General Holder declared that “over-reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable, it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate,” a statement many of us—who for years have been raising the alarm bell about America’s mass incarceration problem—have long known to be true.
Attorney General Holder’s comments strike at the heart of the problem: mass incarceration has devastated African-American communities, families, and lives all around the country. Sustained changes to the policies and attitudes that created this epidemic, however, are the real key. In order for that change to happen, our nation’s moral orientation with mass incarceration and criminal justice will have to adjust accordingly.
At bottom, criminal justice reforms need to be driven by the moral imperative of repairing all that is wrong with the current system. As advocates for change, we must make sure that the reform narrative includes the human costs of mass incarceration and a broken criminal justice system, not just the concern over dollars and cents. The Moral Monday movement—a multi-issue, grassroots, multiracial campaign active in the courtroom, streets, and the ballot box—offers a salient example of how ethics and the lived experiences of real people can drive change and incite action. The movement shifted North Carolina’s political discourse toward morality while focusing on individual stories and the damage done to real people by real, and unjust, policies.