A Criminal Justice System

With his characteristic humility, Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States included a stop at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility outside of Philadelphia, where the pontiff met and blessed several inmates. Though visit was not punctuated with any direct comments about US prisons, the Pope’s visit highlights the need to lovingly engage those on the edge of society, just as Jesus dined with prostitutes and tax collectors.

The harsh reality, however, is that those in the US prison system have largely been forgotten, floundering in a criminal justice system that consistently lacks justice. From the call to be “tough on crime” in the 1980s and 1990s has emerged a system of mass incarceration that punishes minor drug offenders with multi-year sentences, removes parole opportunities, and strips individuals of their dignity.

This is the first of a multi-post blog series analyzing the US criminal justice system, where I hope to inject questions of morality and human dignity into the discussion of mass incarceration. This installment will focus on the genesis and presuppositions of our current predicament, while subsequent posts will explore the racist character of mass incarceration and the abject cruelty of solitary confinement.

The US now struggles with costly, overcrowded prisons. With longer sentences and few opportunities to get out early, about 2.2 million individuals are incarcerated in US prisons – higher than any other country in the world. In fact, despite having only 5% of the world’s population, the US contributes 25% to the world’s prison population. The sheer scale of the US prison system presents many questions to policy makers hoping to balance budgets while keeping their communities safe, but few fail to critically and honestly examine the efficacy of such a bloated and tragic system, much less its moral implications.

A primary shortcoming of the US criminal justice system is its overemphasis on punishing and sequestering those who commit crimes. In 1968, President Nixon commented, “Doubling the conviction rate in this country would do far more to cure crime in America than quadrupling the funds for [the] War on Poverty.” Getting violent individuals off the streets certainly is important, but US criminal justice is now primarily retributive, limiting its capacity to ensure public safety. Instead of looking for ways to rehabilitate criminals or tackling the root causes of crime, US criminal justice is much less proactive, opting to simply segregate criminals from society.

This simplistic perspective has questionable short term benefits and undeniable long term consequences, including prison growth, high recidivism rates, and unjust imprisonment. The most obvious problem is the expansive growth of the prison population, which has increased from 24,000 federal prisoners in 1980 to an unprecedented 216,000 federal prisoners in 2013. At a cost of over $29,000 per year per prisoner, this attitude is a multi-billion dollar investment that fails to deliver meaningful results.

This failure can especially be seen in the number of prisoners that recidivate. Within three years of being released, two-thirds of all prisoners are rearrested. The vehement desire to punish masks the need for compassion to help transform individuals, leaving us with a prison system that creates a vicious cycle of criminality. Many families struggle to get by with family members in prison, and without proper support networks, a criminal record often becomes hereditary. As a result, when an individual leaves prison, they often return to broken homes and find themselves reengaging in criminal activity. This is a tragic failure. One study shows that “the most successful strategy in reducing crime is to optimally allocate resources so that after being punished, criminals experience impactful intervention programs, especially during the first stages of their return to society.” Such programs are a necessary part of a sustainable, loving solution. In disrupting paths to recidivism, prison costs should go down since fewer prisoners would return for subsequent offenses, but more importantly, they extend grace to those coming from brokenness.

Grace, faith, forgiveness – Christ calls us to these virtues, yet our current system suggests that they don’t apply to criminals. Our present system’s commitment to retribution consequently sentences thousands of individuals each year to unjust punishments. The mandatory minimum sentences developed in the 1980s and 1990s have fundamentally changed our justice system. They create strict guidelines that judges have to follow when sentencing an individual – even if they do not believe the punishment is just. Mandatory minimums were originally developed to get drug kingpins off the streets more easily, but this goal has not been met. In 2012, only 6.6 percent of all drug offenders were considered a leader of a drug conspiracy and over half of all convicted federal drug offenders had little or no criminal record. Because mandatory minimums lessen a judge’s capacity to account for an individual’s circumstances during sentencing, this “one size fits all” policy often causes even minor, nonviolent drug offenders to spend years in prison (6 years on average), greatly contributing to our current prison bloat.

These sentences are probably the most blatant example of a defunct justice system addicted to mere punishment and not social restoration. Even worse, a recent study shows that mandatory minimums do very little to actually prevent crime. It is a needless, costly system – both to taxpayers and those put behind bars. The kingpins are not the ones being punished. Instead, individuals caught in vicious cycles of poverty and drug use are sent to prison, which in turn further destabilizes their communities. Thankfully, progress is being made in Congress with the introduction of a sentencing reform bill, and more information about new legislation will likely appear in further posts. However, this bill is still only one step towards addressing the problem of mass incarceration.

Because criminals are purposefully put out of our sight, their lives as human beings are often easy to ignore. We have been trying to cut corners in criminal justice for the past 40 years, and now there is national awareness about the seriousness of mass incarceration. Jesus – a criminal under Roman law – called out during his crucifixion, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). But we know what we are doing and we know the crisis that is before us. During his visit to the US, Pope Francis commented, “Any society, any family, which cannot share or take seriously the pain of its children, and views that pain as something normal or to be expected is a society ‘condemned’ to remain a hostage to itself, prey to the very things which cause that pain.” Christ calls us to compassion, and if we ourselves want to avoid being criminal in our justice, we need to transform the mindset behind our system of mass incarceration. The first step is acknowledging the humanity of those who commit crimes, and offer solutions that are corrective and restorative, not just punitive. We must instill the values of compassion and grace into our corrective practices, for we believe in a merciful God that redeems.

Jesse Winter

Peacebuilding and Policy Associate

Office of Public Witness

Washington, DC



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