“It’s a moment of sanity,” was how Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski characterized a confluence of events this week related to criminal justice reform.
On Oct. 21 a new campaign urging reduced incarceration was launched by a surprising source, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, a new association of more than 130 of the nation’s police chiefs and other top law enforcement officials. In Washington on Oct. 22, President Obama passionately endorsed efforts to reform the U.S. criminal justice system during an hour long panel discussion with law enforcement officials, and a Senate committee cleared the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
That measure includes a reduction in mandatory minimum prison sentences for low-level drug offenders, allows federal judges more sentencing flexibility and calls for limits on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal facilities. The act’s impact on mandatory minimums for inmates convicted in federal courts would be retroactive, so some federal inmates now serving time could see their sentences reduced. Similar changes by the U.S. Sentencing Commission will result next month in the early release of about 6,000 federal inmates
The reform legislation was endorsed by the Archbishop Wenski, acting on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a letter to Congress with Catholic Charities USA President & CEO Sister Donna Markham, O.P. “We welcome this modest bipartisan first step to reform our nation's broken criminal justice system,” the two Catholic leaders wrote on Oct. 19.
“Certainly [the U.S. bishops have] been enthusiastically behind this,” the archbishop told America on Oct. 22, “and we are very pleased to see both Republicans and Democrats getting behind it, also that the president is behind it as well.”
Archbishop Wenski argues that it is high time the nation take a more critical look at the economic and social impact of its decades of tough-on-crime policies, noting that with 2.2 million incarcerated there are more U.S. citizens and residents per capita currently behind bars than were jailed in the old Soviet Union.
“Prisons are being treated as de facto mental health hospitals,” he said. The archbishop called that a very expensive and inhumane way to treat mental illness. Prisons are overcrowded and rates of incarceration are breaking up families and communities, he said, adding they have been especially hard on African American families and neighborhoods.
The national situation “cries out for some correction,” the archbishop said.
Though the outlook for the passage of even this measured reform bill is far from sure, Archbishop Wenski said, “The best thing about this particular proposal, so far anyway, is that it’s got broad bipartisan support.”
Criminal Justice reform, he suggests, could represent a breakthrough for a Congress which has given little evidence it can address the nation’s biggest challenges. “If you want to do something to break down the paralysis in Washington and in Congress,” Archbishop Wenski said, “this would be a significant issue to do it on.”
In a letter to Congress endorsing the act, Archbishop Wenski and Sister Markham wrote:
Our Catholic tradition supports the community's right to establish and enforce laws that protect people and advance the common good. But our faith also teaches us that both victims and offenders have a God-given dignity that calls for justice and restoration, not vengeance. The bishops of the United States, in their 2000 pastoral statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, stated: "Just as God never abandons us, so too we must be in covenant with one another. We are all sinners, and our response to sin and failure should not be abandonment and despair, but rather justice, contrition, reparation, and return or re-integration of all into the community.”
Though the bishops’ pastoral on criminal justice reform was written more than 15 years ago, Archbishop Wenski does not anticipate that the U.S. bishops will revisit the issue of crime and punishment any time soon for a revised statement. Many of the points the 2000 statement raised remain relevant to current conditions, he pointed out. “Some of these older statements have stood the test of time,” the archbishop noted.
Restoring a sane approach to criminal justice, the archbishop acknowledged, won’t happen unless states join the federal government in re-evaluating the fairness and reasonableness of state-level sentencing policies. “But the federal government and Congress can lead the way,” he said, especially if they begin to apply reform conditions to disbursements of federal cash to states’ criminal justice systems. He does not think, given the rising costs of incarceration, that reform will be a hard sell at the local level. The United States spends an estimated $80 billion a year on incarceration. That's means each U.S. resident is paying about $260 per year on corrections, a figure way up from the $77 per person in 1980. “If we can’t persuade them with the humanitarian argument, maybe they’ll hear the practical [appeal],” he said.
The reform proposed in the Senate has already been criticized by some as not comprehensive or deep enough, but congressional realists say it may be all Washington has the will to pass this year. Speaking with members of the Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, President Obama, who has made criminal justice reform a priority during his second term, seemed ready to accept even modest progress. “Rather than think we’re going to solve this all overnight,” the president said, “I’m much more interested in a sustained, steady process.”
Archbishop Wenski argues that both Democrats and Republicans need to demonstrate this year that Congress can be functional. “Many of them are looking at having a few wins; maybe this is one that both Democrats and Republicans agree would be a good win.”
Certainly the support of the Law Enforcement Leaders helps. The new group includes 130 law enforement professionals, including national heavyweights in crime-fighting like New York Police Department Chief William J. Bratton and his counterparts in Chicago, Garry McCarthy, and Los Angeles, Charlie Beck. “We believe the country can reduce incarceration while keeping down crime,” its founding statement begins. “We believe unnecessary incarceration does not work to reduce crime, wastes taxpayer dollars, damages families and divides communities. We aim to build a smarter, stronger, and fairer criminal justice system by replacing ineffective policies with new solutions that reduce both crime and incarceration.”
The group seeks increasing alternatives to arrest and prosecution, especially mental health and drug treatment; reform of mandatory minimum, truth-in-sentencing and three-strikes-you’re-out policies; restoring balance to criminal laws and strengthening community and law enforcement ties.