Black leaders forged alliance with Trump on sentencing deal

Black leaders forged alliance with Trump on sentencing deal

A rare bipartisan deal in Congress to overhaul federal sentencing laws passed after a few black ministers, leaders and lawmakers forged an alliance with President Donald Trump, who some have condemned as racist for the last two years.

The reforms could offer a path to freedom for hundreds of black and Latino inmates who were sent to prison by a justice system that critics say has long been stacked against minorities.

“It’s like threading a needle politically,” said Marc Morial, the National Urban League’s president and CEO. “It’s been very delicate to get us to the point where we are right now.”

Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland, still gets questions from fellow African-Americans asking him why he and other conservative black ministers went to the White House over the summer to talk about the issue with Trump.

“People are still mad at us about that,” Jackson said.

But the end result could be worth it to address what Jackson called “the defining civil rights issue of this era,” even as detractors complain that the legislation did not go far enough and could invite new problems for minority communities.

The bill, which is expected to go to Trump soon for his signature, gives judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders and expands prisoner rehabilitation efforts. It also reduces the life sentence for some drug offenders with three convictions, or “three strikes,” to 25 years.

Another provision would allow about 2,600 federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 the opportunity to petition for a reduced penalty.

That will be a win for minorities who were caught up in a sentencing system that made crack cocaine a more serious offense than other types of cocaine, said New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2020.

“When you correct an injustice in a biased system, it dramatically helps the marginalized people,” Booker said. “That provision alone, 96 percent of the people who are helped by that, are black or Latino.”

Among the advocates of the legislation was a diverse and unlikely group that included presidential adviser Jared Kushner, Kim Kardashian West, the National Urban League, black ministers and minority lawmakers and libertarian-leaning conservatives.

Some of the bill’s advocates say it was a tough decision to work with a White House that is deeply unpopular with black people. More than 8 in 10 African-Americans said they thought Trump was racist in a February poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

But even the supporters say they know this legislation is only the beginning, as reflected by its name, the First Step Act.

Groups such as the NAACP cheered the passage of the bill but also harbored reservations.

The legislation “offers some important improvements to the current federal criminal justice system, but it falls short of providing the meaningful change that is required to make the system genuinely fair,” said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau.

The bill only affects the federal system, meaning anyone given harsh sentences at the state and local level will have no recourse. Those inmates make up the bulk of people behind bars across America.

Blacks constitute 38 percent — or about 68,000 — of the more than 180,000 inmates in the federal prison population, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Hispanics make up 32 percent — or about 58,000 — of federal prison inmates, with about 122,000 non-Hispanics in federal prison.

Some groups say the bill will open the door to increased surveillance of minority communities through electronic monitoring of released inmates. Others point out limitations in the bill on which federal prisoners will benefit from its changes.

The Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 150 black-led organizations, called the legislation “custom-made for rich white men.”

“All of the carve-outs make the vast majority of our people ineligible for the benefits of the bill,” the group said.

Even with the limits, the bill’s advocates are thrilled to have made progress on an issue where reform has remained elusive for more than a decade. Jackson said any president willing to talk about even minor changes should be worked with.

“I believe with all my heart, if Dr. Martin Luther King was alive, he would have been in that meeting,” Jackson said. “And he would have been advocating for the voiceless instead of playing politics and personality games.”

The Brats of Christmas

The Brats of Christmas

What The Best Christmas Pageant Ever teaches us about being true Christians — even when the Herdmans come to our church.

When I was growing up, one of my favorite holiday stories was The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. The book, published in 1972 and later adapted into a TV movie and stage play, tells the story of the six Herdman siblings, “absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world,” who somehow get tangled up in their town church’s Christmas pageant and wind up giving the congregation a new appreciation of the Nativity story.

As a kid, I laughed at the many outrageous deeds the Herdmans — Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie and Gladys — perpetrated on their long-suffering neighbors: smoking cigars in the church ladies’ room, blackmailing the fat boys and girls, and stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down. But as I reread the story as an adult, I’m struck by the sadness of their situation and Robinson’s overriding plea for the church to get beyond lifeless religion and learn from Jesus what it means to welcome everyone.

Certainly, the nameless church in the book (no denomination is mentioned, but it’s safe to assume it’s some variety of Protestant) isn’t the most welcoming place. Its members are stuck in a dull routine that bears little resemblance to vibrant Christianity, presenting the Christmas story the same way every year, with the same perfectionistic people in the roles, and boring everyone in the process. They seem to only care about keeping up appearances and staying busy among themselves.

Still, the church has one thing going for it — or so it thinks. As the young narrator’s brother points out, “What I like best about Sunday school is that there aren’t any Herdmans here.” And the rest of the community finds it pointless to change that: “We figured they were headed straight for hell, by way of the state penitentiary.”

But once the Herdmans strong-arm their way into the lead roles in the pageant, the congregation gets a rude awakening that causes it to rethink assumptions and ask some hard questions — questions that we, as American Christians heading into the second decade of the 21st century, should perhaps be asking ourselves as well.

1. Are We Welcoming the Rejected Ones? How many of us like going to church because “there aren’t any (fill in the blank: liberals, conservatives, African Americans, whites, Latinos, Asians, gays and lesbians, rich people, poor people, single people, divorced people, etc.) here”? Who do we too quickly write off as “headed straight for hell,” refusing to consider what God might be up to and who he might be calling to faith and repentance? Who would you be surprised to see show up at your church, especially in December, when lots of “Christmas-and-Easter” people come to services? Will you make them feel welcome so they want to come back the next week?

2. Are We Teaching the Unchurched? As the United States continues turning into a post-Christian nation, fewer people will be familiar with the Bible and basic Christian teaching. Like the Herdmans, they may barely know the Christmas story and need it explained from the beginning. Will you be patient and willing to teach, letting your eyes be opened to new understandings of passages that have become too familiar?

3. Are We Remembering the Orphans? Like too many children today, the Herdmans were growing up without a father (he had bailed on the family when Gladys was a toddler), and essentially without a mother (who worked double shifts to stay away from her crazy kids). How can the church step in to help children in this situation (and their single parents)? What’s the difference between collecting food for the Orphans Home, as the Sunday school classes in the book did, and actually befriending the de facto orphans down the street?

4. Are We Staying Focused on the Main Thing? Are you open-minded to other people’s way of doing things, or do you think your way is the only way? The narrator’s mother got stuck with directing the pageant when the regular director was hospitalized. She is criticized for letting the Herdmans take over, but defends herself: “Helen Armstrong is not the only woman alive who can run a Christmas pageant.” What do you care the most about during Christmas: maintaining traditions and being in control, or worshiping Jesus?

5. Are We Walking by Faith, No Matter How Impractical? Acceptance and hospitality don’t mean that you never confront people when they’re living in a way that doesn’t line up with God’s will — or that you’re nice to people on the surface while refusing to forgive them in your heart. The Herdmans stole from the church and abused its property, but in the end, they realized what Jesus came into the world to do and even refused to take gifts the church offered them. The narrator’s parents realized that welcoming the Herdmans wasn’t “a practical sentiment,” but it was a Christian one. Forgiveness and reconciliation aren’t always practical, either, but they are commands from God. How will you work toward them this season?

I wonder what might have happened to the Herdman kids after their one shot at church pageant superstardom. I hope they were able to overlook the judgmental attitudes and discover the truth spoken by the pastor, Reverend Hopkins (one of the few sane people in the whole congregation): “He reminded everyone that when Jesus said, ‘Suffer the little children,’ he meant all the little children, including Herdmans.” May we heed those words as well, at Christmas and all year long.