By Lizzie Haworth and Lauren Mirzakhalili
Although prisons are often hidden from view, their effects are apparent to the 2016-2017 QuEST Fellows. Many of us serve at nonprofit placements heavily affected by mass incarceration or have had family or friends who are or have been incarcerated in the U.S. This personal experience made it especially meaningful when we traveled to the other Washington (D.C.) to join the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) for Spring Lobbying Weekend because the focus was ending mass incarceration.
As part of the Spring Lobbying Weekend, we advocated for the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 (H.R. 3713) and the Recidivism Risk Reduction Act (H.R. 759) in the House, and the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S.2123) in the Senate. These bills, if passed, would reduce several lengthy mandatory minimum sentences, give judges more discretion, and lower the population in federal prisons. As the law currently stands, there are disproportionately long prison sentences for certain crimes, combined with laws that prevent successful re-entry into civilian life, that have created a system of mass incarceration that unfairly impacts poor communities and people of color. While this legislation is not perfect and still upholds minimum sentencing, it is a step in the right direction and has a great deal of bipartisan support.
The weekend included learning about the bills, hearing from inspirational speakers such as Jondhi Harrell and Sen. Cory Booker, and then meeting with staffers from the offices of Senator Maria Cantwell, Senator Patty Murray, and Congressman Jim McDermott. Senator Patty Murray is a co-sponsor of the Senate Bill, so we met with her staffer to thank her for co-sponsoring and to encourage her to push the bill for a vote. We met with staffers from Senator Cantwell’s office, who admitted that she would love to co-sponsor the bill, but it is important that the bill remains bipartisan.
If we had a dollar for every time someone told us our voice mattered over the course of Spring Lobbying Weekend, we would probably have this month’s living stipend taken care of! All jokes aside, the weekend was a powerful testament to the importance of politics in social justice. Especially in direct service, it is so easy to lose sight of the policies that impact the people that we serve. However, the work that we do makes us powerful lobbyists for the social justice issues that we hold close to our hearts.
In this FCNL weekend, not only were we given an opportunity that strengthened our bonds as a community, but we were given powerful encouragement. Mass incarceration keeps many great minds from contributing to our country, and every second low-level, nonviolent offenders spend in prison, our country loses, and we are not free.