Faith, Crime and the Pope


Pope Francis' historic five-day visit to the U.S. ended nearly two weeks ago, but his thought-provoking challenges to Americans still linger.

Perhaps none were more provocative than his comments on criminal justice. On September 24, in an address to a joint session of Congress, he called for global abolition of the death penalty.

Three days later, he met with prisoners at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia to expand his message of rehabilitation for those convicted of even the most heinous crimes.

“Every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity,” he said in his address to Congress. “Society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.

“I…offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”

The Pope's comments came at a critical juncture in our domestic debate on reforming the U.S. justice system.

Will they have a lasting impact? Will they assist—or hinder—reformers hoping to bring changes at both the federal and state levels?

The Crime Report asked a number of leading criminologists and reform advocates to assess the significance of the Pope's remarks, and to tell us what else they would have liked to hear him say. Below are some of the key responses.


It is terrific to have a world leader of this stature helping bring more attention to the problems of mass incarceration in the United States. As we might expect, his comments focus on spiritually relevant challenges of redemption.

There can be no question that the U.S. penal system needs to do more to help people who experience incarceration to rejoin society successfully. But there is an overarching problem that too many people go to prison in the US, and too many of them spend more time in prison than they should. This is not a problem of redemption for people behind bars, this is a problem of basic morality for the system that puts them there.

We need to make prisons better places for those who are sent there, of course. But, even more, we need to change the fact that we use imprisonment at a scale greater than any other democratic nation.”

Todd R. Clear is Provost of Rutgers University, and previously Dean of Rutgers School of Criminal Justice. He is the author of several landmark studies of the U.S. justice system, including Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse (Oxford University Press, 2007).


The Pope's comments will strengthen the bipartisan consensus for reforming both the thinking and the policies responsible for American mass incarceration. While critics dismiss conservative reformers as solely fixated on cost-savings, many conservatives invoke the same religious-moral concerns about dignity and redemption raised by the Pope. These humanizing concerns narrow the social distance between those now or formerly incarcerated and the rest of society.

Second, agenda-setting theory holds that the media don't tell us what to think, but rather what to think about. The Catholic Church has long urged compassion, forgiveness and redemption for those convicted of crimes, albeit after sufficient penance, and it has long opposed capital punishment. So, while the Pope's message isn't a newsworthy departure from Catholic doctrine, his widely covered choice to visit with, and speak compassionately about, inmates increases the salience of the human costs of incarceration—at least for those paying attention.

The Pope has provided his massive American audience with a way of discussing these issues that is very different from the harsh rhetoric to which we've become accustomed. The patterns of language, images, attitudes, behaviors, and narratives we use to think about a social problem, and what should be done about it, must change before the policies that reflect and reproduce them can change. So the media's coverage of the Pope's comments on criminal justice may enable more humanizing and compassionate thought, talk and action about punishment and its moral costs.

David A. Green is Associate Professor and Deputy Chair of the Sociology Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.


Prisons will never be perfect; the very act of imprisonment is destructive of human dignity. We ask much of our prisons; we ask that they 'rehabilitate' prisoners and that they exact vengeance in our name. Prisons can't do all that.

Because the prison is such a destructive place, we need to be clear about its purpose, and mindful of its limitations. Imprisonment is flawed and imperfect; we should use it less. One way to have fewer prisoners would be to improve the chances for their success following release.

If prisons and jails are to be humane, they must be safe places. Prisoners whose confinement is an experience in brutality are less likely to succeed when they are released. Drug use in prison is what fuels violence and corruption and is the economic engine from which prison gangs derive their power. Yet, in too many prisons and jails today access to drugs is commonplace and accepted.

Prisons should be places where prisoners learn that respect for the law and for others is how people in civil society behave. This means that the staff must respect the law and each other as well as their charges.

We must build within our prisons a culture of integrity. How prison staff relates to each other and to the prisoners is the most powerful way to teach the prisoner how to be part of a civil community. The goal of prisons should be to release better citizens, not better criminals.

Martin F. Horn is a distinguished lecturer in Corrections at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the Executive Director of the New York State Sentencing Commission by appointment of the Chief Judge of the State of New York. He has served as New York City's Correction Commissioner as well as Pennsylvania's Secretary of Corrections.


The Pope's remarks are to be lauded for shining further light on the moral catastrophe of American carceral policy. Much like other high-profile and influential figures, the head of the Catholic Church is uniquely positioned to take the urgency of change to the nation's corridors of power. It's one of many valuable tools in the arsenal for criminal justice reform. But there's a significant danger in overstating the case for the power of celebrity in remedying America's long legacy of heavy-handed and notoriously ineffective carceral policy.

Systems of oppression are not undone through the magnanimous decisions of powerful people to heed their better angels.

The arc of history demonstrates that closing the gap between our most inhumane traditions and our declared values has always been the work of popular organizing executed by everyday people. When we're blind to this fact, we run the risk of undermining the people most capable of ushering in the same spirit of redemptive, humane and rehabilitating conduct the Pope railroaded our justice system for lacking.

Glenn E. Martin is Founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA an organization dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030.


It may have just been coincidental, but it was certainly encouraging that a week after the Pope's address to Congress a bipartisan group of Senators introduced the most substantial criminal justice reform package we've seen in a generation. As we think about the impact of the Pope's visit, what stands out for me is its potential to prod the political environment toward effective public safety strategies.

As a criminal justice researcher, I'm committed to the study of what works to produce public safety; but the impediment to advancing criminal justice reform has not been a lack of scholarship in this area. Rather, it's been a political environment in which lawmakers are just beginning to strive to be “smart on crime,” rather than simply acting “tough.”

So the import of the Pope's message may be primarily to help build on the reform movement of recent years.

Key in this area was the Pope's message of concern for rehabilitation and redemption, noting that “confinement does not mean exclusion.” By humanizing the problem, and recognizing that people who have harmed their communities are still members of our society, his words can contribute to a perspective that examines the humanity of all involved in the justice process. If we can achieve that, then we can search for solutions that respond to real people and real needs.

Would I have liked to hear the Pope remind his audience that the United States is an international outlier in regard to imposition of the death penalty, mass incarceration, and juvenile life without parole? Of course, but one hopes that as we continue to convey that message, it may now be heard in a more receptive environment.

Marc Mauer is the Executive Director of The Sentencing Project and the author of Race to Incarcerate.


Pope Francis continues the tradition of Catholic leaders urging us to offer hope and a second chance to prisoners. In 2000, the American bishops came together to call for a criminal justice system more closely aligned with faith: “We are convinced that our tradition and our faith offer better alternatives that can hold offenders accountable and challenge them to change their lives; reach out to victims and reject vengeance; restore a sense of community and resist the violence that has engulfed so much of our culture”.

The Pope’s visit to the jail in Philadelphia will call attention to a part of our criminal justice system that receives too little notice: local jails.

Many of those in jail don’t belong there. Many are non-dangerous mentally ill persons. They are sick, not bad. They need treatment not incarceration.

Others are held in jail for months and even years because they don’t have the money to post a small bond. For example, in New York City, almost a third of inmates in 2012 were held until trial because they could not pay a bond of $500 or less. The Pope’s visit reminds us that we should be doing better at caring for “the least of these.”

Pat Nolan is the Chuck Colson Distinguished Fellow on Justice at Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM). He previously served as President of Justice Fellowship (1996-2013), the criminal justice reform division of PFM. He served for 15 years in the California State Assembly, four of those as the Assembly Republican Leader.


For those of us who have argued against mass incarceration and the death penalty for decades, Pope Francis' recent trip to the U.S. adds an important voice for reason and decency to America's increasingly hopeful discussion around our penal policies.

With Supreme Court Justices, poised to issue several death penalty decisions, listening from the front row, the Pope offered up a forceful condemnation of the inhumanity of the ultimate punishment in his unprecedented appearance before a joint session of Congress.

Likewise, with the eyes of the world on him, Pope Francis addressed what is viewed from international standards as America's greatest human rights dilemma – the size and conditions of our prisons – from inside the belly of the beast in a Philadelphia prison.

In 2003, I had the honor of visiting the Vatican with several families of juveniles who were either on death row or had been put to death. On a continent where the death penalty had been functionally abolished for adults, our discussions with Vatican officials, including an audience with Pope John Paul II, about putting juveniles to death placed America's penal policies into stark contrast with our European allies.

For those of us who have worked in the trenches of America's correctional system, consensual validation from moral leaders is a sine qua non of cracking the grip mass incarceration and the death penalty have on our body politic. None of us know which particular straw will break the back of America's love affair with harsh punishments, but Pope Francis added mighty weight to the debate at an important time.”

Vincent Schiraldi is Senior Research Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management. He is former Commissioner of New York City Probation and Director of DC's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.

Wren Longno is Deputy Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College. The Crime Report would like to hear from you. Please participate in this discussion. Add your comments on the themes you see echoed in each of the above statements and include your own response to the Pope's words.

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