U.S. Catholic Leaders Support Prison Sentencing Reform

By Victoria Kim 11/03/15

Catholic leaders hailed a new Senate bill as a step in the right direction.

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Catholic leadership in the United States has come out in support of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, acknowledging that it is a “step in the right direction” in criminal justice reform.

“Our Catholic tradition supports the community’s right to establish and enforce laws that protect people and advance the common good,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, chair of the U.S. bishops’ committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Sister Donna Markham, OP, president and CEO of Catholic Charities, in a letter to Sens. Chuck Grassley and Patrick Leahy.

“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 bill encourages prisoners to participate in “anti-recidivism programs,” which include job training, mental health counseling, and drug treatment that can reduce their sentences, Catholic News Agency reports. According to the National Employment Law Project, unemployment is the biggest cause of recidivism.

“They’ve paid their debt to society,” Anthony Granado, a policy adviser to the U.S. Bishops Conference on issues involving civil rights and the death penalty, told CNA. “It makes no sense to return a person to the community with no assistance, just so they can go back and commit crime.”

It’s a situation that’s all too common. CNA spoke to a man sentenced to prison on a crack cocaine conviction, whose criminal record has made it difficult to hold down a job and an apartment. His story is just “one example of the struggles ex-prisoners face when they look for a job,” said the news agency.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is a step in the right direction. “Really, I think, what the bishops have been saying for quite a while now is it’s a long overdue conversation in our country about how to fix our broken criminal justice system, one that promotes mass incarceration, particularly for poor individuals, minorities,” said Granado.

The legislation would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for many nonviolent and low-level drug offenders, while increasing mandatory minimums for other offenses such as domestic violence.

It also adds several safety valves to allow judges to adjust the penalties for certain non-violent offenses, and in many cases works retroactively to lower the excessive sentences of those already convicted of the relevant crimes, according to the CATO Institute.

“We need to move away from this mentality of punishment for its own sake and look at smarter sentencing, smarter ways of doing incarceration that in the end, not only protect society, but also lift up human life and dignity,” said Granado.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to move the bill to the floor for a vote.

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