Pope Francis' Visit to Congress

As Pope Francis made his way through the streets of Washington, greeting thousands of onlookers, millions more Americans watched from afar — trapped by the consequences of a criminal justice system that has brought untold fiscal, social and emotional costs to our communities.

As the world leader’s motorcade continued zig zagging through the nation’s Capitol, he filled hearts with hope, inspiring all of us to do our part to make the world a more fair, just and hopeful place. In doing so, the Pope’s visit presents an opportunity to reflect on how we think about individuals within our communities, both those who are leaders and those that have made mistakes.

It comes at a time when the national conversation around justice reform has challenged us to consider whether our current system has gone too far — whether punishments no longer fit the crime and whether we can do more to address staggering incarceration rates.

As the Pope said in his historic address before Congress, “a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.” His wise statement comes at a potential turning point for this country to embrace meaningful rehabilitation programs as part of the corrections system. For the first time, bipartisan proposals in Congress present opportunities for systemic reform to expand opportunities for treatment, job training and education.

There is an urgent need for this focus on rehabilitation and redemption. Across the country, millions of people are wondering when their fathers, mothers, siblings will make their own journeys home, freed from the grips of an unforgiving justice system built on very long sentences and overcrowded conditions.

In our country, 2.7 million children have a parent behind bars, tangible evidence that the consequences of incarceration reverberate far beyond the walls of a prison cell — it’s felt in homes, the schools, and the communities.

Responsible people, the Pope said in an address last year, must “do everything possible to correct, improve and educate the person so that he is able to mature in respects, so he is not discouraged and faces the damage caused, rethinking his life without being crushed by the weight of his miseries.”

The “great challenge that we must all face,” he said, is to help incarcerated people “to rehabilitate, to re-embark upon the path of good, to be authentic people who move on from their miseries to become merciful themselves.” Rather than “suppressing, discouraging and isolating,” those convicted of crimes should be engaged “through an educative path of encouraged penance, to rehabilitation and total reinsertion in the community.

With the partnering organizations of the Coalition for Public Safety — the nation’s largest bipartisan organization working to reform the criminal justice system — we see the Pope’s visit as an opportunity to elevate the national discussion on the need for reform. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, humanity lives in us all, and the most human thing we can do is to look out for our fellow citizens — our neighbors, our coworkers, our families, our friends — and come together to ensure that we are treating each other with fairness, respect, and most importantly, a real opportunity for redemption.

More than 2.3 millions Americans are in prison, and many are serving lengthy sentences that do not reflect a public safety goal and instead result in excessive corrections costs. Just as unfortunate, they continue to be punished after they’ve served their time — re-entering a society with countless collateral consequences, facing barriers to turn their lives around.

Nearly 100 million Americans have a criminal history record, creating barriers to employment, education, and housing. Faced with an ever-shrinking list of options after incarceration, many have nowhere to turn to, and as such re-enter the prison system, stuck in a cycle of incarceration that promotes lifelong punishment and very few chances for rehabilitation and, ultimately, redemption. 

Rehabilitation is a major theme of Pope Francis’s trip to the United States — and it’s a message he delivered directly to federal lawmakers as they embark on their own journey to rehabilitate the nation’s justice system.

Pope Francis told a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday, “society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”

His message reminds us that our prison system has become so geared toward punishment, that rehabilitation and the opportunity for a second chance has been lost as the system grows without restraint.

It’s a message that every American should remember, and it’s one of the main pillars of our Fair Sentencing and Fair Chances effort — a campaign and blueprint that represents a baseline of achievable, bipartisan reforms to reduce the prison population and to reduce the barriers facing those exiting the prison system, to successfully re-enter society and lead productive lives.

We have taken to states across the country to carry this message, and to rally support through a national pledge, asking Americans from every corner of the country to join us. We urge everyone to join with us in this positive message for reform.

We can’t wait any longer. The impact of a criminal record in this nation is staggering — it can prevent a parent from getting a job, finding stable housing and becoming a productive member of society. It’s time for all of us to think about how we can make a difference and transform the current status quo.

To put words into action, Pope Francis will end his trip to the United States by visiting people who weren’t able to greet him on the sidewalks when he arrived.

The Pope will visit the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, visiting with prisoners and highlighting for the world why it’s important to reform our justice system — to focus on families, to restore fairness, to promote humanity, and to make the case for redemption for every human being.

Join with us and sign the pledge. It’s time for reform that means accountability can come with hope.

Christine Leonard is the Executive Director of the Coalition for Public Safety the largest national bipartisan effort working to make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer and more cost effective at the federal, state and local levels.

The Coalition has brought together the most prominent organizations from across the political spectrum to pursue comprehensive reforms, including: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for American Progress, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, FreedomWorks, the Leadership Conference Education Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Right on Crime. Together, these organizations represent tens of millions of Americans seeking commonsense criminal justice reforms. Our key supporters are Laura and John Arnold, Koch Industries, Inc., the Ford Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.