russell_simmons_web.jpgNEW YORK – A coalition of more than 175 artists, actors, athletes, elected officials and advocates brought together by hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons and Boyce Watkins presented an open letter to President Barack Obama on Tuesday, urging him to double down on his efforts to change the country’s criminal justice policy.

The coalition is calling for the system that currently focuses on punishment and suppression to address evidence-based prevention and rehabilitation.

In a press statement, the coalition cites Department of Justice data, saying the U.S. leads the world in the incarceration of its own citizens, both on a per capita basis and in terms of total prison population.

More than 500,000 of the 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S. are in prison for nonviolent drug offenses, the statement said.

“It is critical that we change both the way we think about drug laws in this country and how we generate positive solutions that leave a lasting impact on rebuilding our communities,” Simmons said in the statement.

“We need to break the school-to-prison pipeline, support and educate our younger generations and provide them with a path that doesn’t leave them disenfranchised with limited options,” Simmons said.

Besides Simmons and Watkins, others who have endorsed the letter to Obama include NAACP President/CEO Benjamin Jealous, as well as business magnate Richard Branson and film and television personalities, musicians and comedians Harry Belafonte, Russell Brand, Sean “Diddy” Combs, DJ Pauly D, Cameron Diaz, Jon Hamm, Ron Howard, Jennifer Hudson, Scarlett Johansson, John Legend, Eva Longoria and  Ludacris.

Also, Natalie Maines, Nicki Minaj, Demi Moore, Michael Moore, Chris Rock, Rick Ross, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Mike Tyson, Mark Wahlberg and Lil Wayne.

The coalition is urging Obama to push for reforming the system, including extending the Fair Sentencing Act to all inmates who were sentenced under the 100-to-1 crack/powder disparity; supporting the principles of the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 which allows judges to set aside mandatory minimum sentences when they deem appropriate;  and supporting the Youth PROMISE Act.

According to the coalition, “misguided” drug laws and draconian sentencing requirements have produced profoundly unequal sentences for people of color. For example, rates of drug use and drug selling are comparable across racial and ethnic lines but blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be criminalized for drug law violations than whites.

The coalition said 2.7 million children are growing up in homes in which one or more parents are in prison and two-thirds of them were sentenced for nonviolent offenses. 

In addition, one in nine black children has a parent in prison, compared to one in 28 Latino children and one in 57 white children.

“The letter is intended to be a respectful appeal to the Obama Administration asking that we develop productive pathways to supporting families that have been harmed by the War on Drugs,” Watkins said. “Countless numbers of children have been waiting decades for their parents to come home and America is made safer if we break the cycle of mass incarceration.

“Time is of the essence, for with each passing year that we allow injustice to prevail, our nation loses another piece of its soul.  We must carefully examine the impact of the War on Drugs and the millions of living, breathing Americans who’ve been affected.  It is, quite simply, the right thing to do.”

The coalition said it hopes the letter will spark more meaningful conversations about the War on Drugs in the White House and also encourage the public to be more actively engaged on such issues.