Reforming the prison system

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | November 12, 2019

It’s time to focus on new options

Last week, Pope Francis met with about 50 people attending an international conference on the Catholic Church’s pastoral care of prisoners. During his talk to the group, the pope urged greater efforts to reform prison systems. He also called for addressing the root causes of crime and doing more to welcome prisoners back into the community once they complete their sentences.

Prison sentences and sentencing guidelines are two areas of the criminal justice system that need reform, according to the pope. He said countries “in a supposed search for good and for security, seek the isolation and imprisonment of those who act against social norms.”

“It is easier to repress than to educate and, I would say, it is more comfortable too,” Pope Francis said, expressing the axiom, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

“Denying the injustice present in society and (instead) creating these spaces to put offenders is easier than offering equal development opportunities to all citizens,” the pope added.

While prison sentences dole out justice, they should also seek to educate and prepare the incarcerated for an eventual return to society, the pope said.

Prison reform is also a current topic in the United States. In December 1018, President Donald Trump signed into law the “First Step Act.”

“The First Step Act gives nonviolent offenders the chance to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens. Now, states across the country are following our lead. America is a nation that believes in redemption,” Trump said in his State of the Union address Feb. 5, 2019.

The new law allows thousands of men and women an opportunity to earn an earlier release from prison. However, it only impacts those in the federal prison system, which has a population of about 181,000. State prisons and county jails reportedly have a population of 2.1 million.

Representatives of Catholic Charities USA and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops praised passage of the First Step Act, saying that it is “a true first step towards long-term criminal justice system reform.”

The First Step Act’s passage was a wonderful example of bipartisan cooperation benefitting an often forgotten part of society. Trump and Congress should be commended for its passage.

In Green Bay, a related topic is in the news. On Thursday, Nov. 21 at 6 p.m., people of faith will gather at St. Matthew Church in Allouez to discuss the Green Bay Correctional Institution, located along Highway 172 in Allouez. The state prison was built in 1898 and faces an uncertain future.

The prison is a good candidate for closure due to its antiquated design, according to a report issued by the Legislative Audit Bureau last May. The interfaith group, Justice Organization Sharing Hope United for Action (JOSHUA), is encouraging public discussion on this topic.

“Wisconsin’s governor and State Legislature have a big decision to make,” the group said in a press release. “Will our state spend $1 billion over the next 20 years to build and operate a new prison, or will we join the states around the nation that are reducing their prison populations?”

The current move toward greater reform of the prison system seems to make expansion of prisons a waste of taxpayer money. Instead, we need to find ways to address justice while reforming those who commit crimes. The Nov. 21 gathering will be a good opportunity for citizens to learn more about this topic. “We are working to build a campaign that invests in people, not prisons,” JOSHUA says. It’s a sentiment on which both Pope Francis and President Trump can agree.

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