Amid Calls for Reform, a Look at Stories — and Stats — From the US Prison System

Catholic leaders hail a new Senate bill as a ‘modest bipartisan first step’ in criminal-justice reform, praising it overall, although some new mandatory minimum sentences are ‘problematic.’

(photo: Fresnel via

WASHINGTON — Saul Green wanted to turn his life around.

Twenty-four years ago, Green was caught stealing out of a subway-station vending machine and charged with larceny. After the judge tossed out the case, he was later sentenced to prison on a crack-cocaine conviction.

Following his year in prison, he found employment as a concierge for three months in Washington. But when his employer wanted to move him to a security-guard position, his prison term cost him the job.

“Ever since that time, it’s been hard,” he told CNA. He lost his apartment and had to take everything he owned to the streets. Green currently lives in a men’s shelter in Washington and is still waiting for calls back from employers — after more than 125 interviews for potential jobs.

Green’s story is one example of the struggles ex-prisoners face when they look for jobs. For years, Catholic leaders have been calling for criminal-justice reform to help avoid similar situations, which can result in homelessness, drug abuse, gang activity or a return to crime (and then prison).  

Now, the U.S. Catholic bishops believe that a new Senate bill is a good first step to achieving reform.

“Our Catholic tradition supports the community’s right to establish and enforce laws that protect people and advance the common good,” stated a recent letter from Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president of Catholic Charities USA.

“But our faith also teaches us that both victims and offenders have a God-given dignity that calls for justice and restoration, not vengeance,” they continued.

Their letter, sent to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ranking member of the committee, applauds the Senate’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

It hails the bill as a “modest bipartisan first step” in criminal-justice reform, praising it overall, while finding the addition of some new mandatory minimum sentences “problematic.”

The bill is “comprehensive,” according to Anthony Granado, a policy adviser to the U.S. bishops on issues involving civil rights and the death penalty.

“We need to move away from this mentality of punishment for its own sake and look at smarter sentencing, smarter ways of doing incarceration that, in the end, not only protect society, but also lift up human life and dignity,” he told CNA.


Bipartisan Reform

Reform of the criminal-justice system has now become a thoroughly bipartisan initiative. Presidential candidates from both parties have talked about the issue. The new Senate bill enjoys three co-sponsors from each party.

Some reform advocates believe that a push for tougher stances on crime in the 1980s and 1990s culminated with a legal system that houses too many prisoners for too long a time, and at unnecessary expense to society.

The U.S. has 5% of the world’s overall population, but 25% of the prison population. The federal prison population has seen a 790% increase since 1980, according to the Congressional Research Service.

And minorities are more likely to be behind bars, another reason why advocates insist upon reform of the justice system. One in nine black children has a father in prison, according to 2009 statistics from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Over a third of young black males without high-school diplomas are in jail. One in three black males born now will at some point serve time in jail.

“Really, I think, what the bishops have been saying for quite a while now is it’s a long-overdue conversation in our country about how to fix our broken criminal-justice system,” Granado said, “one that promotes mass incarceration, particularly for poor individuals, minorities.”

“This [bill] is a step in the right direction,” he added.

As a first step in a reform initiative, the Senate bill addresses sentencing reform, but also anti-recidivism programs and solitary confinement reform.


‘I Did Not Need Nearly 20 Years’

The bill cuts some mandatory minimum sentences for many nonviolent and low-level drug offenders, while at the same time adding other mandatory minimums. Some of the mandated sentences stretch to 15 or even 25 years.

Debi Campbell, a Virginia resident who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the bill on Monday, argued that she deserved jail time for using and selling methamphetamine with her husband in the 1990s — but not almost 20 years, which was her sentence.

One of her clients had gone to the police, and Campbell was charged with conspiracy to sell 10 kilos of meth.

“I never even saw that much drugs, much less sold it,” she said in her written testimony, but she was being charged for both her own crimes and those of her clients, plus for their allegations made against her.

Campbell pled guilty in 1994 and received a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, plus an extra sentence of almost 10 additional years. Her client received probation in return for being an informant.

“I needed to go to prison because I desperately needed a wake-up call,” she said in her testimony. “But I did not need nearly 20 years in prison to learn my lesson.”

“The worst part was not being able to be with my four daughters,” she said. “I had already failed them once, and now they were growing up in the foster-care system.”

Mandatory minimums “don’t really take into account” the particular circumstances of a person’s case, Granado said. “They’ve been applied so disproportionately, particularly for nonviolent offenses.”

The bishops oppose one-size-fits-all laws like that because they don’t deal with the “subsidiarity” of taking each human case as it comes, he added.


Reforming for Justice

The proposed bill also expands “safety valves” to give judges more flexibility in determining whether a defendant merits less than the mandatory minimum sentence. Those with a serious drug offense or a violent offense would not be eligible.

In addition, the bill reduces the penalty in the federal three-strike law from life imprisonment to 25 years for drug offenders. The three-strike law applies when a person is convicted of a “serious violent felony” and has been previously convicted twice in federal or state court of a “serious violent felony” and another offense, which can be a “serious drug offense.”

The legislation also encourages prisoners to participate in “anti-recidivism programs,” which can reduce their sentences. These programs would include job training, mental health counseling and drug treatment, which Granado argues helps get to the root of the problem of why they’re in prison.

Preventing recidivism (a return to prison for someone who has been released) is critical, Granado said. However, he added it is “very difficult for these persons to find jobs.”

Unemployment is the biggest cause of recidivism, maintains Judith Conti of the National Employment Law Project. She advocates for persons who cannot get a job because of their previous criminal records. The best-case scenario for a former inmate who is jobless, she says, is that he receives public benefits.

The worst-case scenario — and all too common — is that he reverts back to crime.

“They’ve paid their debt to society,” Granado said. “It makes no sense to return a person to the community with no assistance, just so they can go back and commit crime.”

Yet despite support from churches, friends and organizations, such assistance may not be enough for an ex-inmate to land a job, as exemplified by the story of Saul Green. Reform advocates say serious efforts are needed to turn things around.


Solitary Confinement Reform

On another note, the proposed Senate bill contains “strong regulations and restrictions” on solitary confinement for juveniles, Granado said.

Bernard Kerik, former police commissioner for New York City, who pled guilty to tax evasion and fraudulent statements in 2009 and served three years in prison, spent 60 days in solitary confinement.

“That 60 days, to me, was like 10 years,” he said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation in May. Kerik said that, during his time in solitary, he started hallucinating and talking to himself. To pass the time he would count everything: “the number of bedsprings, steps, cracks in the walls, lines and mudsplats on the windows.”

He said that after spending time in solitary someone will “admit to anything … to get out of that cell.”

The proposed Senate bill enacts “modest” reform, and Granado says that this should be rooted in the “Golden Rule” of the Gospel of St. Matthew, which Pope Francis referenced before Congress: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you (7:12).”

When so many are tempted to say of prisoners, “Lock them up and throw away the key,” we must treat them as we would want to be treated, he stated. The teaching “goes back to the classical Greek thought of Aristotle; it’s been a part of the Church’s social teaching going back to day one.”

Pope Francis “reminds us that we’re all capable of committing grave sin and evil, but at the end, we’re redeemed by Christ’s love,” Granado added, “through the cross and the Resurrection.”

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami.

USCCB Religious Liberty Chair Warns: ‘Soft Despotism’ of Anti-Catholicism on the Rise

Archbishop Wenski cited a new wave of religious intolerance pointing to laws forbidding public funding of religious schools—overruled by the Supreme Court this week—but also in the HHS contraceptive mandate case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, and 21 year-old Jack Denton, who was removed from his student government position at Florida State University for defending Church teaching.