The Pope Goes to Prison. The Bishops Explain Why.

People are excited by Pope Francis’s visit to America. Crowds will be huge and a privileged few will meet him in person.

On Sunday the Pope will visit a prison in Philadelphia. Why is Francis spending precious papal time behind bars?

The answer is in a statement published in 2000 by the Catholic Bishops of the United States. When it was written, prison populations were skyrocketing and fear of crime dominated the news. Willie Horton was a fresh memory and a left-right coalition on crime was a far-off fantasy. Black lives surely mattered but they didn’t have a hashtag.

I pulled my copy off the shelf. The Bishops were thoughtful, courageous, and now more relevant than ever. “Our Catholic faith can help us and others to go beyond the current debate and gain a deeper understanding of how to reject crime, help heal its victims, and pursue the common good,” they wrote. “We wish to move away from the so-called ‘soft’ or ‘tough’ approaches to crime and punishment offered by those at opposite ends of the political spectrum.”

Nearly the entire (92 percent) U.S. Congress is Christian. Nearly a third (31 percent) are Catholic. It’s been 15 years. How many of them are ready to take the leap of faith?

To begin, the bishops are gracious. “[P]unishment of wrongdoers is clearly justified in the Catholic tradition, but is never justified for its own sake. A compassionate community and a loving God seek accountability and correction but not suffering for its own sake. Punishment must have a constructive and redemptive purpose”

Indeed, how we punish says as much about us as about the lawbreaker. “[T]he test for the rest of us is whether we will exercise our responsibility to hold the offender accountable without violating his or her basic rights.” Punishment should not be an expression of anger or an excuse to hurt people. “[N]one of us is the sum total of the worst act we have ever committed.”

In recent years we have failed this test. Our prison population remains outrageous by historical and international norms – 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. We cram more and more people into solitary confinement, and opportunities for meaningful education and rehabilitation are scarce. Too many politicians (still) vie to sound tougher than the next.

The Pope offers us a chance to get it right.

We can do better not only by people who committed crimes, but by the victims. The bishops observe that “sometimes victims are ‘used’ by the criminal justice system or political interests. As the prosecution builds a case, the victim’s hurt and loss can be seen as a tool to obtain convictions and tough sentences. But the victim’s need to be heard and to be healed are not really addressed.”

The bishops point towards what is sometimes called restorative justice. “Punishment must have a purpose. It must be coupled with treatment and, when possible, restitution… Restorative justice focuses first on the victim and the community harmed by the crime, rather than on the dominant state-against-the-perpetrator model,” they write. “This shift in focus affirms the hurt and loss of the victim, as well as the harm and fear of the community, and insists that offenders come to grips with the consequences of their actions.”

As the practitioners of restorative justice say, “Crime is a wound. Justice should heal.”

I explore these themes in my new novel, “Making Manna,” a novel about a woman who is the victim of child sexual abuse, and her struggles with jobs that don’t pay a living wage and a justice system that solves the wrong problems, and solves them badly. At one point in the story, the church that helps a girl whose mother is in prison quotes the Bible passage, “For the Lord hears the needy and does not despise his own people who are in prison” (Psalm 69:33).” But while the girl’s mother is in pointless custody, characters who suffered serious crimes don’t get the support they need.

The Bishop’s statement includes so much more. It decries poverty, for obvious reasons, as well as the “underlying problems” of poor housing, inadequate education and high unemployment. It calls for more treatment for drug addiction and mental illness. It even casts doubt on “private for-profit prison corporations” and opposes “the increasing use of isolation units.” The Bishops conclude, “Finally, we must welcome ex-offenders back into society as full participating members, to the extent feasible, and support their right to vote.

A June 2015 public opinion poll shows that 69 percent of voters say it is important for the country to reduce its prison population, including 81 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of Independents and 54 percent of Republicans. Eighty-seven percent of respondents agree that drug addicts and people with mental illness should be in treatment not prison.

The Pope wants reform and so do the people. What can we expect from those who represent them in the legislature?

Eric Lotke was formerly research director of the Campaign for America’s Future. His latest novel is “Making Manna” (Brandylane Publishers). This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

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