When I first returned to Baltimore in 2005, after working for nearly 10 years in the Holy Land, I spent some time just driving around the city to get reacquainted with it. I was immediately struck by the number of men, mostly young African-Americans, congregating on street corners or porch stoops in the middle of the day, a time when most people are at work. At that time, Baltimore City’s unemployment rate was around 7 percent, not nearly as high as the 12 percent it would reach in 2010 or even the 7.8 percent reported in April 2014. And yet, even then, there was a pervasive sense of hopelessness and lost opportunity in those faces of men who had the odds so badly stacked against them—poverty, poor education, lack of employment, drug addictions and drug-related crime in their neighborhoods, and friends and family members who had been shot or imprisoned. For them to envision a brighter future, to see their way to a safer, more stable life, was nearly impossible.
Soon I would become aware of how our system of sentencing and incarceration contributes to all of this and helps to create a class of citizens who have little hope of ever advancing beyond their dreadful way of life.
While the issues of urban poverty and crime in the United States are complex, many people are starting to understand that there is one facet that is recognizable and that has reached epic proportions, so much so that workers in the field are labeling it a public health crisis: the mass incarceration of staggering numbers of people—primarily young African-American and Latino men—for nonviolent, mostly drug-related offenses.
It is a public health crisis because the effect of mass incarceration reaches far beyond the imprisoned individual. It tears apart families, sinking them further into poverty and leaving one out of every 28 children with a parent who is incarcerated, two thirds of whom are in prison or jail for nonviolent crimes. It creates a subclass of citizens who will have great difficulty finding gainful employment on their return to society. It disenfranchises citizens by taking away their right to vote, thereby stripping them of their ability to influence lawmakers for their own betterment and that of society itself. This public health crisis is such because of the failures of the correctional system to deal adequately with the substance abuse, mental problems and physical health issues of inmates. And instead of preparing inmates for successful reentry into society, it prepares them for reentry into prison, a fact evidenced by the raft of post-release court-mandated classes, drug screenings, meetings with probation officers and addiction recovery meetings, among other things.
The more than four-decade long war on drugs was meant to make drug abuse public enemy number one and also to direct federal resources to the prevention of new addicts and the rehabilitation of those already addicted. But a quick review of statistics is all that is needed to demonstrate the failures of this effort and the new addiction it has created: a penchant for locking people up in prison.
The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In 1974, 100 out of every 100,000 citizens of this country were in prison; today, there are roughly 700 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 Americans. The next highest incarceration rate occurs in the Russian Federation, which incarcerates 474 people for every 100,000 of its citizens.
There are now 12 times as many drug offenders in state prisons as there were 30 years ago. Drug offenders make up nearly half the federal prison inmates, most of whom are incarcerated for nonviolent trafficking or possession charges.
Despite similar rates of substance abuse among whites and African-Americans, the U.S. Department of Justice reports that almost twice as many African-Americans as whites are incarcerated for drug offenses. African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but 45 percent of those incarcerated for drug violations.
It is now estimated that one in three African-Americans will spend time in prison during his or her lifetime; one in five will be incarcerated because of drug laws.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, two out of every three prisoners released will be rearrested within three years, and nearly half of those released from prison will be incarcerated again within three years.
The Sentencing Project reports that the number of inmates in privately run, for-profit prisons grew by 80 percent between 1999 and 2010, even though the total number of prisoners in the United States grew by only 18 percent.
These for-profit prisons use contracts to incentivize incarceration, and they impose “fines” on the contracting government if it does not provide the stipulated quota of inmates. They maximize their profit by offering lower pay to less qualified staff and providing fewer programs for training and rehabilitation.
The assault rate in private prisons is twice that in public prisons, and they are rife with documented physical and sexual abuse of inmates by the staff. Forty percent of juveniles sent to prison will serve their time in a private facility such as this.
We have created a subclass of citizens and now, so that we don’t have to deal with them directly, we are creating a for-profit industry, not subject to federal and state prison regulations, to house these citizens.
Why Look for Solutions?
Christ made it abundantly clear that he came “to seek and save the lost” (Lk 19:10). He has mercy on our sins; he brings life out of death. It is important that whenever we talk about prisoners we remember that “all have sinned” (Rom 3:23). If our own pride, greed and intemperance have not led us before a court of justice, it is, as the saying goes, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Moreover, we have a responsibility to fight injustice, to extend mercy to those who have made poor choices and to help lead them on a path of dignity toward redemption.
At a recent U.S.C.C.B. briefing on Capitol Hill regarding mass incarceration, one of the speakers made reference to a part in the musical “Les Misérables” that shows remarkable parallels to today and which prompted me to reflect on it further. In “Les Misérables,” when Jean Valjean is released after being imprisoned for 19 years for a petty crime, he says with hope: “And now let’s see what this new world will do for me!” Yet he encounters a world filled with injustice and hopelessness. He becomes so desperate to escape his poverty that he steals household silver from Bishop Myriel, who had kindly offered him shelter.
Unfortunately, this is not so different from the situation that many convicted felons face today—citizens returning after being imprisoned for nonviolent crimes and then released to fend for themselves, while encountering one obstacle after another to doing so honestly.
There is another lesson to be learned from this story. When Valjean is caught for stealing the cup, the bishop shows mercy by going along with Valjean’s story to the police that the stolen silver was a gift—and he gives him even more! The bishop is not giving away just silver; he is concerned with Valjean’s rehabilitation and with the salvation of Valjean’s soul through his reconciliation to God. His parting words ultimately set Valjean on a path of repentance:
It is a fact of life that people will make poor choices, either out of lack of judgment, lack of guidance or desperation. But just as Bishop Myriel showed mercy towards Jean Valjean and provided both the material and spiritual help he needed to set out on the right path, so too must we be able to lead those who have made poor choices to rehabilitation, redemption and reintegration.
In actuality, the path begins well before any serious criminal activity occurs. In this regard, the Catholic Church has a unique opportunity to be a conduit of merciful and transformative action through our Catholic schools. In a recent book entitled Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America (University of Chicago Press), Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett, law professors at the University of Notre Dame, concluded that the presence of Catholic schools is positively correlated with neighborhood stability and lower crime. They also concluded that Catholic elementary schools help foster closer social connections and a greater sense of responsibility for the common good, what they call social capital.
Deterring criminal behavior and reducing rates of incarceration also require programs that equip people to overcome the challenges that result from a poor education, lack of marketable job skills and the legacy of physical abuse, chemical dependency and disease that often plague those who live in poverty and despair. Access to these programs should be easy and plentiful, which means they must be fully funded, professionally staffed and centrally located, and they must be visible and integrated into our systems and institutions so they can effectively reach those they are designed to serve.
The tide of public opinion and legislation seems to be turning favorably in this direction. A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that 67 percent of Americans believe the government should focus more on providing treatment for drug users, while only 26 percent feel it should focus on prosecuting drug users. The survey also showed that in 2014, 63 percent of Americans supported the elimination of mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, up from 47 percent in 2001. Proposals like the Smarter Sentencing Act currently being debated by Congress, which would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of federal drug offenses, are leading the way in trying to address the problems associated with mass incarceration by keeping more nonviolent offenders out of prison to begin with.
Those who do end up serving sentences in prison must get the help they need to be productive and law abiding citizens when they are released. This is so obvious that it seems strange to have to make such a statement. One need not condone actions that harm society, but we must seek responses that do not result in a recidivism rate of nearly 70 percent. There must be a clear path to overcoming dependency issues that includes being able to find housing, buy food and support children and finding acceptance and forgiveness from others. In so doing, we must seek to mine the potential given each person by God and to restore dignity and wholeness to their lives. This is critical not only for former inmates but for their families and our communities as well.
No one aspires to become a drug addict and go to jail. People do not freely choose to live where there are drugs being sold on the streets, gunshots being fired, the unemployed gathered at every corner and temptations to succumb to a full menu of vices at every turn. We are called to acknowledge that our society has set up a structure of inequality, where those who are poor or members of a minority group suffer disproportionately for their mistakes and are not given a chance to recover their footing in society. Our Catholic parishes can play a critical role here by exploring ways to help welcome back not former inmates but returning citizens.
In his recent visits to prisons in Italy, Pope Francis continually spoke about the challenges faced by inmates returning to society and the need for them to have hope. He called upon institutions to ensure that an “effective reinsertion in society” is not neglected, lest the penalty being served become just a punishment and instrument of social retaliation. And he emphasized that the dignity of the human person must be at the center of all we do—that we must always have hope and give hope because God’s love for each one of us is eternal and his forgiveness is inexhaustible. God “never condemns. He never forgives only, but he forgives and accompanies.... This is the love of God, and we must imitate him!” May we, like God, never tire of forgiving, of accompanying those who need forgiveness on a path to dignity and wholeness.
Correction, Feb. 19, 2015: Bishop Madden's author ID has been updated to reflect the fact that his term as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs has ended.