By David N. Adair, Jr.
It was widely reported last week that on July 18 the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to permit Federal judges to reduce the sentences of up to 46,290 Federal drug offenders. In April the Commission had reduced the base guideline levels for most Federal drug offenses but did not permit judges to reduce sentences previously imposed.
“Vermont’s war on heroin progresses slowly” (April 10). “Vermont’s war on heroin fills court docket” (July 14). These recent headlines from the Burlington Free Press should give us all pause. They are designed to pique interest and sell papers; okay, that’s the paper’s job. But they also are designed, consciously or not, to generate fear. You wage war against a fearsome enemy. After all, war is typically a last resort to a problem. It’s extreme, it’s dramatic, and if you’re a politician, using this rhetoric can earn you publicity and votes.
This past Saturday, Sister Helen Prejean (pronounced “pray-jah”) spoke at a dinner for Vermont Dismas, the organization that provides housing in several locations around the state for men and women coming out of jail. Perhaps best known for her book, Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen has spent her life advocating on behalf of poor people and against the death penalty. Dead Man Walking is the story of her experience with a man on death row, whom she corresponded with, then served as spiritual advisor, and finally accompanied to his death. It was made into a film, a play, and an opera.
Piper Kerman was in Vermont today, to talk with the women at the South Burlington prison this afternoon and with students at UVM tonight. She’s the author of Orange is the New Black, her powerful memoir of a year spent in federal prison in Danbury, CT.
The highly regarded Netflix series based on the book will begin its second season on June 6.
Over lunch with a few of us today at August First, Piper talked about what we need to do to fix this broken criminal justice system—particularly sentencing reform (especially of drug laws), and better representation of public defendants. We agree! The evidence is overwhelming that harsh sentencing practices have no positive impact on public safety or individuals’ lives, and waste taxpayers’ money besides. And public defenders are notoriously overworked, with caseloads that sometimes leave them only minutes to meet with a client before entering the courtroom.
We’re so grateful to Piper for sharing her story with us, in her book and in person, especially at the women’s prison, where the turnout filled the gym. And we’re excited that she’ll be back to do a fundraiser for us later in the year! Keep a look-out!