Archbishop Thomas Wenski: Our broken incarceration policies


Catholics and other Christians around the world take comfort knowing that the “Lord never tires of forgiving us, never!” as Pope Francis has said. But beyond our personal failings, we also know that there is brokenness in society. This brokenness is perhaps no more evident than in our nation’s tragic rate of incarceration.

The United States imprisons more people per capita than any other nation in the world at a cost of approximately $80 billion annually. In 2011, approximately 7 million people were under some form of correctional control with 2.2 million incarcerated in federal, state or local prisons.

According to the Florida Department of Corrections, as of January 2014, Florida housed 100,445 inmates in 55 state prisons and seven private prisons. The average annual cost to Floridians to imprison someone is $17,338 per year, with Miami-Dade County topping the list of convictions.

Hispanics are twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites, and if current incarceration practices continue, one in three African-American males can expect to go to prison at some point in their lifetime.

Several factors have contributed to these shocking statistics. Mandatory minimum sentencing, increased criminalization of nonviolent offenses and tough-on-crime policies that introduce youth offenders to the prison system at younger and younger ages all play a role in the increasing number of incarcerations. The growth in recent years of the for-profit private prison industry has also, some argue, created a perverse incentive that favors incarceration instead of other alternatives.

Rigid sentences are not only costly but often prove detrimental to the good of families and communities. Prolonged incarceration contributes to higher rates of recidivism, family instability and poverty. Punishment in order to promote human life and dignity should promote the rehabilitation of the wrongdoer and his restoration as a productive member of society.

People from diverse political and religious perspectives are beginning to question our nation’s harsh sentencing practices. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have introduced The Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410), which seeks to implement modest reforms of mandatory minimum sentences by expanding judicial sentencing options specifically for nonviolent drug offenses.

The bill would permit reductions in mandatory sentences for certain drug crimes and allow crack cocaine offenders to seek lighter sentences under the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act.

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. It is counterproductive to invest vast amounts of resources in imprisoning nonviolent offenders.

Instead, government and civil society should promote effective programs aimed at crime prevention, rehabilitation, education, substance abuse treatment, and programs of probation, parole and reintegration.

As Pope Francis has said, “God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person’s life.” Rather than throwing away the broken, we should seeks ways to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into the larger society.

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.

Thomas G. Wenski is archbishop of Miami.

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