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Time to fix broken sentencing polices

Archbishop Wenski's column for the May edition of the Florida Catholic

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Catholics and other Christians around the world take comfort knowing that the “Lord never tires of forgiving us, never!” as Pope Francis has said. But beyond our personal failings, we also know that there is brokenness in society. This brokenness is perhaps no more evident than in our nation’s tragic rate of incarceration. 

The United States imprisons more people per capita than any other nation in the world, at a cost of approximately $80 billion annually. In 2011, approximately seven million people were under some form of correctional control, with 2.2 million incarcerated in federal, state or local prisons.

According to the Florida Department of Corrections, as of January 2014, Florida housed 100,445 inmates in 55 state prisons and seven private prisons. The average annual cost to Floridians to imprison someone is $17,338 per year, with Miami-Dade County topping the list of convictions.  

Hispanics are twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites, and if current incarceration practices continue, one in three African-American males can expect to go to prison at some point in their lifetime.  

Several factors have contributed to these shocking statistics. Mandatory minimum sentencing, increased criminalization of non-violent offenses, and tough-on-crime polices that introduce youth offenders to the prison system at younger and younger ages, all play a role in the increasing number of incarcerations. Also, the growth in recent years of the for-profit private prison industry has, some argue, created a perverse incentive that favors incarceration to other possible alternatives.

Rigid sentences are not only costly but often prove detrimental to the good of families and communities. Prolonged incarceration contributes to higher rates of recidivism, family instability and poverty. Punishment in order to promote human life and dignity should promote the rehabilitation of the wrongdoer and his restoration as a productive member of society.

People from diverse political and religious perspectives are beginning to question our nation’s harsh sentencing practices. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) have introduced The Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410) which seeks to implement modest reforms of mandatory minimum sentences by expanding judicial sentencing options specifically for non-violent drug offenses. The bill would permit reductions in mandatory sentences for certain drug crimes and allow crack cocaine offenders to seek lighter sentences under the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act.

Government rightly establishes laws to protect people and advance the common good. But the human and financial costs of mass incarceration are undermining the common good and do little to protect the citizenry. It is counterproductive to invest vast amounts of resources in imprisoning non-violent offenders. Instead, government and civil society should be promoting effective programs aimed at crime prevention, rehabilitation, education efforts, substance abuse treatment, and programs of probation, parole and reintegration.

As Pope Francis has said, "God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person’s life.” Rather than “throwing away” the broken, we should seeks ways to rehabilitate and reintegrate them into the larger society.

Contrition, restitution, rehabilitation can better serve the cause of justice than just punishment for the sake of punishment. It is time for healing and to begin the long overdue conversation about how to fix our nation’s broken incarceration policies. 

Comments from readers

Aken Cabrera - 05/16/2014 01:02 AM
Wonderful column. Archbishop Wenski is true leader who really cares for
the people of the Archdiocese of Miami. That being said, I would like to mention a few points. Besides there being an incentive for incarceration because of for-profit prisons, we should also mention the fact that there is also a political motivation as well because the position of State or District Attorney (depending on the state, is an elected position, which means that the only way in which the State or District Attorney gets re-elected is by "being tough on crime", and not exactly because he or she really cares about public safety. Another factor, is that a large number of Defendants are Spanish speaking, thus not fully understanding their Constitutional rights. Also, a lot of times, the Prosecutor assigned to the cases are only seeking a conviction, which by the way could be by the Defendant making a guilty plea, due to the fact that many times the accused just does not want to go prison, and thus simply take the "easy way out" that is presented to him or her, not only by the Prosecutor, or by a Public Defender who has a very large case load and just wants decrease their case load.

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