Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami has called for the reform of a “broken” justice system, recommending sentencing reform and better prisoner rehabilitation to address problems caused by mass incarceration.
“Government rightly establishes laws to protect people and advance the common good. But, the human and financial costs of mass incarceration are undermining the common good and do little to protect the citizenry,” Archbishop Wenski said in a May 6 opinion essay for The Miami Herald.
“Rather than throwing away the broken, we should seeks ways to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into the larger society.”
Archbishop Wenski said the U.S. imprisons people at a cost of about $80 billion each year and has the largest prison population per capita in the world. In 2011, about 2.2 million people were incarcerated in federal, state, or local prisons. Some 7 million people were under some form of correctional control.
He said that Hispanics are twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites, and as many as one in three African-American males could be imprisoned at some point in their life.
Archbishop Wenski said these “shocking” statistics are due to mandatory minimum sentencing, increased criminalization of non-violent offenses, and “tough-on-crime policies that introduce youth offenders to the prison system at younger and younger ages.”
Rigid sentences are financially expensive, he said, and harm “the good of families and communities,” adding that prolonged incarceration helps increase recidivism, family instability, and poverty.
The Miami archbishop cited the proposed Smarter Sentencing Act, sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), which would seek “modest reforms” of mandatory minimum sentences and allow options for nonviolent drug crimes, as a way to improve sentencing practices nationwide.
Archbishop Wenski said it is “counterproductive” to invest so much in imprisoning non-violent offenders, urging more government and civil society programs to prevent crime, rehabilitate offenders, provide education, and treat substance abusers. He also recommended more effective programs of probation, parole, and former prisoner reintegration.
The archbishop cited Pope Francis’ reminder that God is in “everyone’s life”, even if that life has been “a disaster” and “destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else.”
Quoting the Pope, he said that God “never tires of forgiving us, never!”
Archbishop Wenski concluded, saying, “contrition, restitution and rehabilitation can better serve the cause of justice than just punishment for the sake of punishment.”
“It is time for healing and to begin the long overdue conversation about how to fix our nation’s broken incarceration policies.”