12/09/2013 03:59 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

International Human Rights Day: African American Faith Leaders Call for End to War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration

It's striking that as the world mourns the death of President Nelson Mandela, we are also commemorating the 65th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 2013. As we fly our flags at half-mast around the world for "Madiba," the father of the anti-apartheid movement, he might ask us to remember his words: "No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails."

Madiba might also direct us to reflect on the significance of the U.N. Human Rights Declaration and its directive that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

Yet the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with over 2.3 million people behind bars. The United States represents less than five percent of the world's population, yet is home to almost 25 percent of the world's prisoners. African Americans represent nearly 50 percent of those who are incarcerated in the U.S., yet only represent 13 percent of the entire population. This system is clearly racialized.

This is a moment for us to acknowledge and recommit to struggle against the disparate policing behaviors in our communities of color and among the poor; the inhumane and degrading treatment of those behind bars; and the demonization and marginalization of formerly incarcerated persons and their families.

This is a moment of pause and caution against national and state trends toward privatization of and profiteering from prisons. Eight percent of the prisoners in the U.S. are now in private prisons. For-profit companies now hold six percent of state prisoners and 16 percent of federal prisoners.

Over the past 15 months, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (SDPC) convened a series of public forums in nine states as statewide justice hearings on the issue of mass incarceration. The SDPC will soon release its entire report and findings with specific recommendations from those who have been caught in the system, and from those who work in changing the system.

The consensus is clear. All efforts should be made to dismantle the War on Drugs and re-invest in communities; the privatization of prisons should be halted; and, faith communities should facilitate the institutionalized development of citizen advocates and oversight systems to ensure a more equitable and humane criminal justice system -- in the courts, in prisons, and in rehabilitation and restorative justice for people who have been incarcerated.

In light of all we have witnessed and heard, Aesop's fable, "The Eagle and The Fox," comes to mind. The eagle perched high, took advantage of and ignored the rights and needs of the fox, grounded below. In the end, the actions of the eagle undermined and destroyed its own nest. The moral of the story, as we reform and transform the U.S. system of crime and punishment is to be careful how you serve up justice to others.

Let us not confuse imprisonment of those who warrant punishment with those we just deem disposable. Let us not meet out undue and unnecessarily harsh punishment. And let us remember to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As we together embark on reform and transformation of our destructive and fundamentally broken criminal justice system -- a race and class-based system.

In the fullest spirit of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, we honor the life and legacy of Nelson "Madiba" Mandela. He modeled for the world what it requires to be a warrior for justice and a messenger of peace and reconciliation. We unequivocally affirm the words of Rev. Dr. Martin L. King that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," - whether in faraway countries or right here in our country and in our communities.

Let us act to correct the injustices that are occurring within the American justice system and to thus show that this nation, which often shows concern for the human rights of people in other nations around the world, is also concerned about the human rights violations that are happening at home.