When Pope Francis visited a Bolivian prison in July, he chose one of the most crowded and perilous facilities in the country—the Palmasola detention center in Santa Cruz.
Palmasola was built to house 800 inmates but is currently holding about 5,000 men and women, which has led to dangerous riots. He picked this prison to shed light on overcrowding and the need for reform. The Pope called for more rehabilitation programs for prisoners, such as increasing access to education and job training, so ex-offenders are better able to rejoin society.
As the Pope said at the July visit, “Being imprisoned, ‘shut in,’ is not the same thing as being ‘shut out,’ that must be clear. Detention is part of a process of reintegration into society. I know that there are many things here that make it hard—I know it very well and you mentioned it: overcrowding, justice delayed, a lack of training opportunities and rehabilitation policies, violence, the lack of university study facilities. All these things point to the need for a speedy and efficient cooperation between institutions in order to come up with solutions.”
This week, during his trip to our great country, the Pope will again visit a correctional facility. This time, he will be stopping at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, the largest in Philadelphia. The city’s jails altogether house almost 8,200 inmates—1,700 more than intended, and Curran itself is more than 800 inmates overcapacity.
The United States is not Bolivia. But we are no less in need of reform.
The American criminal justice system has contributed to an epidemic of broken families. More than 2.7 million American children have a parent behind bars. That’s 1 in 28 kids. Which means you can walk into any average American kindergarten class and likely find a child with an incarcerated parent. And two-thirds of these incarcerated parents are serving time for non-violent crimes. The criminal justice system impacts so many American families that just last year Sesame Street released a video on how to talk to kids about prison.
Criminal justice reform has become a movement that now spans religious, political and ideological lines. Just days apart in July of this year, both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, bitter opponents on just about every other issue, agreed on the need to move justice reform forward. The President noted that today’s justice system “remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth,” and has an adverse impact on families, while Speaker Boehner candidly remarked that too many American inmates are behind bars for “flimsy reasons.”
Christian leaders across our country have spoken out about the need for our justice system to reflect Christian ideals, especially equal justice before the law, because “injustice to one ends up eventually being injustice to all.” Late last year, in a groundbreaking moment, leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention spoke out forcefully against a justice system unfair to communities of color, especially black men who are “more likely to be arrested, more likely to be executed, more likely to be killed.” And the Convention has passed a resolution “declaring support for legislative policies that would reduce high incarceration rates without jeopardizing public safety.” Baptist leaders have even come out in favor of specific legislation, such as the Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System (CORRECTIONS) Act.
And these leaders are not alone. The U.S. Justice Action Network, which includes eight partner organizations ranging in diversity from the Faith and Freedom Coalition to the Center for American Progress, is working on comprehensive criminal justice reforms at the state and federal level to safely reduce the prison population and astronomical costs to the taxpayers, address overcriminalization and break down barriers for ex-offenders looking to find jobs, support their families and lead crime-free lives. Just this month in Ohio, the Network brought together Grover Norquist from Americans for Tax Reform and Alison Holcomb from the ACLU in support of a complete overhaul of the state’s criminal code. Republicans and Democrats, judges and public defenders, faith-based and advocacy groups collected together in a challenge to “swing for the fences” and look for more treatment options instead of incarceration, especially for low-level drug offenses.
So, during his visit this week, Pope Francis will see progress already underway in this country to reform our criminal justice system. He will find committed allies among Protestants and Catholics, blacks and whites, conservatives and progressives and beyond. And when the Pope meets with prisoners at Curran, he will certainly find conditions better than what he faced in Bolivia. He will experience first-hand some of the reintegration programs he champions. The Pope will be presented with a chair made by inmates working in a furniture shop for Philacor, a non-profit that teaches those behind bars carpentry and other skills they can use when they leave prison.
The data on why we need reentry programs is compelling. When they return to society, formerly incarcerated individuals work nine fewer weeks per year and take home 40% less annual pay than their colleagues. They often have trouble securing housing and gaining access to educational programs that could help them obtain jobs. When they cannot find adequate employment, ex-offenders very often return to crime and return to prison, feeding high recidivism rates. Job training programs, especially those targeted toward industries lacking in skilled labor like the one in Curran, can have a real impact in ensuring that ex-offenders are able to contribute to society, provide for themselves and their families after incarceration and turn away from the crimes that put them behind bars in the first place. These outcomes lower costs to the taxpayers and make our society safer.
No, the United States is not Bolivia. We are a superpower, one of the wealthiest, most well-educated countries in the world. Our most well-respected religious, political and advocacy leaders have made progress in championing policies, especially in the states, that provide hope for incarcerated individuals and their families. But when more than 120,000 mothers and more than 1.1 million fathers are behind bars, there is so much left to do. We have a broad coalition of diverse organizations willing to spend significant money and resources to convince elected leaders at the state and federal levels to pass much needed, comprehensive reform legislation.
So whatever else the Pope may have to say about justice reform, this is what America needs to hear: our country has all the tools to bring about transformational change that could heal and rebuild millions of American families. And we have fewer challenges than many less fortunate nations. Given all our resources, if America fails to make more substantial changes, it may be the greatest indictment of all. If the United States cannot lead on justice reform, then God have mercy on the rest of the world.
**Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. serves as president of the
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the Southern
***Holly Harris is executive director of the U.S. Justice