How the Pope Could Help Prison Reform

With criminal justice reform a key piece of the Pope's message -- and one that goes far beyond that of the cost of incarceration -- he may be able to exploit this post-partisan moment and move some hearts, minds and ideologies toward real reform.
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Pope, Post-Partisanship and Prisons


We all want a piece of the Pope- or at least a piece of the Pope-A-Palooza. Here in DC, we've got bobble-headed Popes, papal cocktails and YOPO ("You Only Pope Once") cologne.

With the fanfare of an international rock star, Pope Francis descends on the US to adoring fans, Catholics and non-Catholics, the religious and the agnostic. We have a collective hope that he will bestow mercy and help upon us- for the poor, for immigrants, for working families, for the incarcerated, for the climate.

The Pope's Promise

We want the promise of the prayer of St Francis, Pope Francis' namesake: "Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy."

Poverty, Racism, Over-Criminalization in the US

But, could even a Pope deliver? With a conservative House and Senate, austerity continues to reign, keeping the poverty rate relatively high in the world's richest nation. Hatred festers as the racial divide deepens in the U.S. Black Lives Matter activists have to face angry Confederate Flag activists. A white supremacist enters an African-American church and murders the prayerful churchgoers at point blank range.

Cell phone cameras catch police officers targeting, shooting, beating and killing unarmed black men, women and children. Presidential candidates compete for who can build the highest fence to keep out immigrants and refugees from Latin America. Poor children, black and Latino children, disabled children and Muslim children are criminalized in our schools and end up before judges for nothing more than childish behavior; or, sometimes, as in the recent case of Ahmed Mohamed -- for laudable behavior. Fires burn our western coast as the hottest year on record gives us a preview of how a changing climate will change our lives for the worse.

For even the most faithful, it's difficult to see from where the hope, light and joy would come.

Hope for Prison Reform?

But on one egregiously unjust front, there just might be enough of a post-partisan political opening that a pontifical prayer could create real progress: mass incarceration and the abuse suffered by our prisoners and incarcerated youth. On these issues, the Pope has been vocal and compelling.

Just 10 days after his installation as Pope, Francis stunned the world by bathing and kissing the feet of incarcerated youth, including girls and Muslims. He has gone on record saying: "States must abstain from the criminal beating of children, who have not fully developed to maturity and for this reason cannot be held responsible." He has condemned "deplorable prison conditions and railed against the death penalty. He stated that: "A life sentence is just a death penalty in disguise."

Pope Francis' statements have echoed some of the findings of a recent Institute for Policy Studies report that I co-authored, "The Poor Get Prison; The Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty." He condemned the criminalization of poor, black and brown people, saying: "There is at times a tendency to deliberately fabricate enemies: stereotyped figures who represent all the characteristics that society perceives or interprets as threatening. The mechanisms that form these images are the same that allowed the spread of racist ideas in their time."

A post-partisan moment?

I don't want to overstate the agreement on the depth, causes and remedies for these problems with the US criminal justice system among liberal and conservative lawmakers, but there is a surprising opening of a post-partisan, if you will, impulse to change that which is causing over-incarceration, over-criimalization and an overburdening of federal, state and local budgets.

A national initiative called #cut50, endorsed by Republican and Democratic lawmakers and activists, has the goal of reducing our incarcerated population-over 2.3 million people- by half in ten years. President Obama has initiated several programs to help citizens returning from prison. Movements for sentencing reform, ending mass incarceration, eliminating juvenile justice detention facilities and assistance for re-entry after incarceration are taking hold all over the country. Because our system has become so financially burdensome, a cost of $80 billion per year, conservatives and conservative lawmakers also see the problem and are willing to work across party lines to look for solutions.

With criminal justice reform a key piece of the Pope's message--and one that goes far beyond that of the cost of incarceration- he may be able to exploit this post-partisan moment and move some hearts, minds and ideologies toward real reform.

Bring on the Pope-A-Palooza and begin the end to over-criminalization and over-incarceration of our nation's poor, African-American and immigrant populations.

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