Criminal justice reformers await holy ally: Pope Francis

There’s a long history of religious leaders writing and teaching from inside prisons — from Martin Luther King to Paul the Apostle. But 78-year-old Pope Francis may be the most prominent religious leader to ever advocate for prison reform from the outside.

Last year, Francis called for an end to solitary confinement, the death penalty and life imprisonment. He has knelt down to wash and then kiss the feet of Roman inmates on two of the first Holy Thursdays of his papacy. Visiting a group of Bolivian prisoners recently, the pope told them he sees no difference between them and himself — they are all sinners.

Now Francis is coming to the United States, much to the delight of criminal justice reformers who have waged a growing bipartisan battle to scale back and remake the mammoth U.S. penal system. Reformers hope Francis’ visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia next month as part of his six-day U.S. tour will grab lawmakers’ attention. A few days before visiting the inner-city prison, the pope will address Congress and could raise the issue of criminal justice reform there as well.

One in three Americans today has a criminal record, and the United States remains the largest jailer in the world, thanks in part to lengthy sentences for drug crimes. These bleak statistics have led many Republicans and Democrats — including most of the candidates for president — to question the current system. Yet despite broad bipartisan support that has joined unlikely allies such as the Koch brothers and President Obama, major legislative proposals have stalled in Congress. A big spotlight from this rock-star-like pope could give the issue a boost.


Murals painted by inmates and barbed wire are seen outside Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Mark Makela/Reuters)

Francis is not the first pontiff to urge mercy and redemption for convicts. Pope Innocent X visited inmates in the late 1600s. Pope John Paul II famously forgave and asked for a pardon for the man who almost killed him in a 1981 assassination attempt, and Pope Benedict visited at least two prisons. But Francis is unique in how much emphasis he’s put on the issue and how specific he’s been about how societies should treat their prisoners. He’s visited at least four prisons in his short tenure as pope, including one of the most dangerous in Latin America, and responded to hundreds of letters from U.S. prisoners serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles.

In a speech to penal-law representatives from around the world in October 2014, the pope laid out his vision for criminal justice reform. He called for an end to solitary confinement, which he compared to torture, and spoke out against pre-trial detention. (The U.S. sends thousands of people to prison each year because they cannot afford bail.) He spoke out against both the death penalty and life sentences. (“A life sentence is just a death penalty in disguise,” said Francis.) And he urged law enforcement to take pity on pregnant, old and young offenders.

The pope also urged countries to more broadly reflect upon the point of imprisonment. Is it about bringing justice to victims and reforming the offenders? Or is it simply revenge and a way to “scapegoat” stereotyped people for all social ills?

Addressing prisoners in Italy last year, Francis spoke passionately about how locking people up for years and years without giving them hope for reintegrating into society is wrong.

“Some consider taking a path of punishment, of misdeeds, of sins and just to suffer, suffer, suffer,” he said in a penitentiary in the Italian town of Isernia. “To cage people … for the mere fact that if he is inside we are safe, this serves nothing. It does not help us.”


Pope Francis waves as he arrives by car at the Rebibbia prison for a ceremony in which he washes the feet of prisoners, as Jesus did for his disciples, in 2014 in Rome. (Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP)

Criminal justice reformers are hoping the pope will address specific issues facing the U.S., which is home to nearly one-quarter of the world’s prisoners even though Americans make up just 5 percent of the global population. Bills currently stalled in Congress would allow inmates to shave time off their sentences by working in prison and would eliminate lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders.

It’s unclear if Francis will use his visit with roughly 100 inmates in the Philadelphia prison’s gymnasium to advocate for specific reforms. And his congressional speech could well focus instead on poverty, the need to care for the environment or welcoming immigrants—all major themes of his ministry.

“What we’re really hoping for are some specific United States statements,” said Karen Clifton, the executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, an anti-death-penalty group. “We do incarcerate per capita more than anyone else in the world. He’s got to bring those facts to life.”

This could lead legislators to think twice about their priorities.

“If this good and holy man says this is a concern, I think it affects the conscience of all legislators and especially Catholics,” said Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union, a leader in the reform movement.

Holly Harris, the director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a criminal justice reform group, said she believes the pope’s focus on the issue could force presidential candidates to move beyond vague support for criminal justice reform and actually develop solid proposals for the U.S. penal system.

“It’s great for us,” Harris said of the papal visit. “We think it’s going to push the candidates to be more specific on criminal justice reform. What we haven’t seen from all of them is detailed proposals on how they’re going to reduce the prison population, how they’re going to save money.”

Pope Francis may lead the way.