Tide may be turning against harsh prison sentences

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Readers of the Bible may recall the passage in Chapter 4 of Luke that presages the start of Jesus’ public ministry, in which Jesus said, in part: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives."

Others may be more familiar with the passage in Chapter 25 of Matthew, two days before the Last Supper, in which Jesus told one of his last parables, about a king who tells the righteous, "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me" — and when righteous ask when that happened since they can’t recall it, the king replies, "Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me."

On July 16, President Barack Obama made his own visit to "the least" of these in prison — at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution Oklahoma City. It was the first prison visit by a sitting president. Three days earlier he commuted the sentences of 46 federal prisoners.

Polling shows Americans are roughly split on Obama’s overall job performance as president, but his visit to El Reno and the commutations reflect an emerging consensus that sentences are too harsh and that many prisoners are locked up for far longer than necessary.

Obama’s commutations, two more than he’s given over the rest of his presidency, take effect Nov. 10. The inmates being released are all nonviolent drug offenders who were given lengthy prison terms when Congress, in a cyclical tough-on-crime mood, changed sentencing guidelines into mandatory-minimum jail terms. That mood may be changing on Capitol Hill.

The sentences — which judges had no discretion to shorten — filled the nation’s penitentiaries to overflowing. Prison construction became the quick fix of economic stimulus for small towns battered by economic setbacks or stagnant crop prices. Private companies also got into the act, often housing convicts hundreds of miles away from their homes so families couldn’t easily visit. The prisons even charged exorbitant rates for collect calls home.

As Karen Clifton put it, "The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners." She is executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty.

Clifton, speaking to Catholic News Service from Chicago, where she was attending a conference on restorative justice, said she is assembling material for a workshop on restorative justice at the parish level in time for next year’s Catholic Social Ministry Gathering.

Restorative justice emphasizes repairing the harm caused by unjust behavior. It holds offenders accountable, while simultaneously trying to redeem their broken situation.

Mike Riggs, director of communications for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, was excited about Obama’s actions.

"We have a lot of people in prison, not only more than before, but more than any other country in the world," he told CNS. "They may have broken the law, but they’re still human beings. They’re seeking redemption, changing their lives, hoping to get back to their families."

Riggs said he would like to see more traction on the federal Justice Department’s clemency initiative announced last year. Under its terms, clemency can be invoked for federal prisoners if they likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today;are nonviolent, low-level offenders without significant ties to crime rings;have served at least 10 years of their sentence;don’t have a significant criminal history;have demonstrated good conduct in prison;and have no history of violence prior to or during their current imprisonment.

But life can be tough once a prisoner is released. "Some folks went in with not enough education to be competitive," Riggs said. "A lot of them have gotten things like GEDs, they’ve received training for a trade, substance abuse counseling, anger management counseling. A lot of that is really helpful, but the technology has changed (since they went into prison) to make them really competitive in the workplace."

He added that they can apply for a job but they may not get past the wastebasket in which a lot of applications are tossed once someone sees a checkmark next to the question, "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" Seventeen states and 52 cities have passed "ban the box" laws forbidding employers from asking the question.

Mandatory minimums are one end of the prison spectrum. At the other end is the mandatory maximum: the death penalty.

The day of Obama’s prison visit, two bishops issued a joint statement against capital punishment: Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chair of their Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

"Our faith tradition offers a unique perspective on crime and punishment, one grounded in mercy and healing, not punishment for its own sake," they said. "No matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so. Today, we have this capability." They added, "As a people of life, we say it is time for the U.S. to abandon use of the death penalty."

No one could agree more than Marc Hyden, founder of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, albeit for different reasons than might be argued by the bishops.

"The conservative case against the death penalty is incredibly simple," Hyden said. "The death penalty risks innocent lives, it costs more than prison. I don’t think there’s anything pro-life about giving the state the power to kill its citizens. What do you get out of this program? You get the quintessential big, broken government program."

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