By Father John Hynes
The United States is home to almost one-quarter of the world’s prison population, yet less than 6 percent of the world’s people. This is a new development. In 1980 the rate of incarceration was 139 persons per 100,000 US residents. By 2008 it had risen to 504 per 100,000. While different states have varying numbers, these rates are pretty consistent. In local jails, more than half are unadjudicated. They simply can’t afford bail.
What is a Christian, and a Catholic, to think?
The state has the responsibility to punish people who have done deliberate harm to others and to society. This punishment when it involves prison is meant to correct the wrongdoer. It may also serve to protect society from him or her and deter them and others from future crime. Finally, it is meant to restore justice. And here lies the problem in our country: Does increased and extended imprisonment yield us a better society and more just way of life? Or is it rather a form of societal vengeance, inflicting hurt and harm on the wrongdoer to “get even?” When we applauded “Get tough on crime” proposals also known as “truth in sentencing,” and the elimination of parole, were we saying “get rid of these persons because some persons are outside redemption?”
As a parish priest I have visited prisons off and on for 53 years. In recent decades I have seen constant new construction at the local Gander Hill Prison in Wilmington. Only the Christiana Hospital rivals it for growth. I have witnessed prisoners sleeping on cots, filling the prison gymnasium. I see legions of physically able young men shuffling in groups from one room to another, with dulled faces and idle hands. It resembles kindergarten. As costs mount, the prison guards pull more overtime and education programs are cut. Visits by clergy and other persons who are part of the “correction” process are curtailed. The Delaware Correctional System has become a “punishment system.”
For decades nationwide, our state legislators have enhanced criminal penalties, added new crimes (largely redundant) and enacted “mandatory minimum” sentencing which takes discretion out of the judges’ hands. All this makes it easier to send defendants to prison for decades at a time. A single criminal occurrence can draw five or ten separate counts which are used by prosecutors to press defendants to plead guilty then bargain to a lesser jail time. This has led to overflowing prisons and many children bereft of the support their father or mother can no longer give. It also exposes younger offenders to bad influences rather than “correction.”
In the State of Delaware for three years the General Assembly has been pursuing a reform of criminal law. In 1973 the state’s model penal code filled 95 pages. Since then that code has ballooned to over 407 pages because of many new criminal statutes. Criminal laws were easy to pass. Getting tough on crime always sounds good to the constituents. But it has led to much injustice. Our Delaware legislature is seeking to reform the code so that the net good from imprisonment will outweigh the bad.
More is needed than just reform of a penal code. Its application is uneven. We know that African Americans are imprisoned at a much higher rate. And African Americans represent the large majority of those imprisoned for drug offenses.
This is a time to right some well-intended wrongs. Our criminal law must be more just. Fallible human beings make laws but only God reads the heart. Our part is to recognize the image of God in every person, to embrace the compassion with which Jesus looked upon the dying thief, and to make our society a place where reconciliation has a better chance. Reforming the criminal code is a step forward on this path. A further step would be to allow “restorative justice” a place in our system.
I urge Catholics to press your legislators to vote for prison reform when it is presented. We have allowed punishment to overshadow correction; vengeance to dominate justice; isolation to triumph over reconciliation. To continue with the present practice is to reject the belief that human persons are capable of redemption, and that every human being, no matter what he has done, is loved by God and lovable in himself. As Pope Francis said to Congress, “A just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”
(Father Hynes is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Wilmington).