Catholic support for prison sentencing reform bill

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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Two prominent Catholics have endorsed an important new bipartisan criminal justice reform bill.

Sponsored by Senators Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin, among others, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 would reduce sentences for some current federal prisoners while creating shorter sentences for future prisoners. It is principally concerned with long prison sentences given to low-level, non-violent drug offenders, but it would also limit solitary confinement for juvenile offenders. 

In a statement released by the U.S. bishops' conference, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development of the USCCB, wrote: “Pope Francis stressed only days ago that: ‘Jesus ... teaches us to see the world through his eyes. Eyes which are not scandalized by the dust picked up along the way, but want to cleanse, heal and restore. He asks us to create new opportunities: for inmates, for their families, for correctional authorities, and for society as a whole.’” 

“The bishops welcome this modest bi-partisan effort to reform our criminal justice system,” he stated. “We must try to ensure that sentences are just, while creating humane space in which individuals can restore their lives with the kind of support that reduces the chances that they will return to prison in the future. These reforms are a step in the right direction.”

Sr. Donna Markham, OP, PhD, President of Catholic Charities USA, wrote: “Reform to the criminal justice system is long overdue. Catholic social teaching affirms that human dignity is not something we earn by good behavior, but it is something we are endowed with as children of God. Strengthening families and community connections should play a central role in our criminal justice system. Catholic Charities USA supports efforts that reflect these priorities.”

Despite the optimism, some worry about the bill’s future. 

“Yet even though the measure is seen as the most hopeful in the House at this point, it has yet to be given a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, where the chairman, Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), has been given the go-ahead by the House GOP leadership to develop his own plan,” reports the Los Angeles Times

“One Capitol Hill source said sentencing changes may not make it out of the House until next year, if then, and then it would have to be reconciled with various Senate versions under discussion, including the latest proposal,” the Times reports. 

In other U.S. prison sentencing news, the Justice Department will release nearly 6,000 inmates from federal prisons starting at the end of the month as “part of an effort to ease overcrowding and roll back the harsh penalties given to nonviolent drug dealers in the 1980s and ’90s,” reports the New York Times.  

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is]

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