“I was in prison, and you visited me … and inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.”

It’s interesting how easily this line (taken from Christ’s Parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25) can slide under our eyes almost unseen. It is somewhat distinctive from the rest, because everyone else Jesus identifies among “the least of these” might be seen as more unfortunate than guilty: the hungry, the sick and the stranger.

The prisoner, at least in our minds, is a guilty person. How do we see him as the personification of Christ?  What sort of treatment is warranted in his case?

For many of us, this question may not seem to have much immediate relevance to our lives. Nevertheless, it is increasingly pressing in the United States today. About 2.3 million Americans (we might think of them as “the other 1%”) are incarcerated right now. Millions more are under other forms of correctional control (parole or probation).

Despite that, crime seems to be on the rise, in part because so many of those who pass through our justice system end up committing another offense within a few years of their release. Prisons are having very little success at rehabilitating offenders, and on top of this, troubling questions have lately arisen about the fairness both of our police force and of our court system.

What should Catholics make of this brew of issues? In the face of both intense suffering and weighty concerns about justice, it seems we ought to have something meaningful to contribute, but weighing the various conflicting claims is a daunting task.

In fact, Catholic social teaching does provide a framework that may help us to think more productively about justice reform. To a great extent, our justice system has lost its way because it has lost sight of what human beings are and of the natural human ties that sustain them and enable moral growth. Catholic social teaching can help us to recover that foundation, which is the appropriate starting place for any kind of policy reform.

Human life is precious, since every one of us reflects God’s own image (even in a badly disfigured way). This is true of policeman and prosecutor, criminal and victim alike. Social teaching also reminds us that man is a social being, whose identity is constantly shaped and formed by human relationships, especially with his family, his community and God. If we fail to respect that basic reality, we will be unable to respond to social problems in a way that is both just and humane. 

Modern societies have great difficulty respecting that truth. Our sprawling, technocratic justice system is just one manifestation of a more general modern tendency. As the Holy Father recently reminded us in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, modern people love to attack problems through massive systematic solutions that ignore organic relationships and the contours of natural community. In so doing, we dehumanize individuals and simultaneously attack the social fabric that is essential to everyone’s moral, social and even material well-being. Everyone suffers, and true justice is rarely achieved.

In America’s impoverished neighborhoods, the scars from this systematic, dehumanizing treatment are at this point very deep. Interestingly, this is recognized across the political spectrum, though different parties are inclined to blame different actors.

Political conservatives have long decried the injurious effects of the welfare state, which (as predicted by the highly prescient Daniel Patrick Moynihan) has precipitated a dramatic rise in illegitimacy and family breakdown. This has been a catastrophe in America’s more impoverished neighborhoods, where marital breakdown has left us with legions of angry, disaffected, fatherless young men.

By replacing corporal works of mercy with anonymous checks sent from faceless bureaucratic offices, we have modestly alleviated material want and replaced it with massive social and spiritual problems.

From another corner of the political spectrum, more attention is given to the destructive effects of an aggressive police force and a dehumanizing prison system. In many high-crime neighborhoods, residents are likely to see the police more as oppressors than protectors.

People from particular demographics feel that they are automatically viewed as troublemakers, merely on the basis of their age or race. Those who do run afoul of the law find themselves in a quagmire of procedures and policies that seem completely opaque to ordinary human understanding. Prison itself is especially dehumanizing, and inmates (or former inmates) comment again and again on the difficulty of maintaining a shred of humanity within a system that seems almost designed to shy away from acknowledgment that the incarcerated are still persons.

Both the welfare state and our justice system present us with an enormously complex set of problems. Still, reflecting on the matter in light of Catholic social teaching, we can see a kind of symmetry between them. The welfare state keeps the poor from going hungry, while an aggressively punitive justice system keeps them from causing too much disorder.

Both have in our time become sprawling, technocratic systems that pursue limited objectives without sufficient attention to the real, human needs of those who are most affected. The tragic irony is that the resulting system is both expensive and ineffective. When we fail to get a balanced, humane perspective on social ills, our systematic solutions often end up worsening the problems they were designed to solve.

Can we do better? We surely can, and at least with respect to incarceration, there is some good news.

Over the past few years, several states have begun experimenting with new measures designed to reduce both incarceration and recidivism rates. These programs have already shown promising results, and Catholics should join together in supporting the kind of justice reform that helps rehabilitate criminals with an eye to restoring some of the pieces in America’s most broken communities.

Texas and Georgia have been leaders in the area of prison reform, working to reduce sentences and improve community re-entry programs, particularly for nonviolent drug offenders and for juveniles. The results thus far are impressive. States that were once known for their harshly punitive justice systems have found themselves closing prisons and slashing corrections budgets, without seeing a corresponding rise in crime.

In Hawaii, a program designed to rehabilitate drug offenders in a community setting has shown particular promise, and it is now being modeled in several other states. What’s impressive about this program is that, in contrast to so much of our justice system, it begins with the presumption that addicts can be rehabilitated. By taking steps to address the moral needs of the criminal offender, it serves the needs of the community and the general public.

The potential benefits to these reforms are enormous: reduced public spending on corrections, fewer broken families and a good-faith effort to promote real moral growth, particularly among those whose early lives may have been marked by tremendous adversity.

Moral growth requires accountability, and we must always be mindful of the distinction between offering second chances and just letting people off the hook. Still, there are many cases in which alternatives to incarceration can effectively hold criminals accountable, while also giving them better odds of pulling their lives back together.

Catholic social teaching reminds us that we will always do better to treat human beings as human beings, even when they fail to recognize their own humanity. In the prison-reform movement, we see yet another case in which a more realistic, humane understanding of crime and criminality can enable smart, ethical policy reform.

Hopefully, that promising beginning can precipitate similar sorts of responsible reform across other segments of our justice system. Our nation has too many prisoners and too often regards them in a way that is profoundly un-Christian.

It is past time we gave more attention to “the least of these” brethren.

Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.