Criminal Justice and Juvenile Justice
The United States makes up less than 5% of the world’s total population but is responsible for incarcerating 22% of the world’s prisoners. The majority of prisoners in the federal system are serving sentences for non-violent drug offenses. Given budget cuts to vital prisoner re-entry services, it no surprise that around half of former inmates released are re-arrested. Many of these returning inmates will face legal discrimination in access to employment, housing, and public assistance programs, exacerbating the difficult challenge of effectively re-entering society.
Juveniles in particular face many challenges in our justice system. Despite a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that banned the use of mandatory life without parole sentence for juveniles, the United States remains the only country in the world where children can still be sentenced to die in prison through life without parole sentences. Often times, youth born into poor communities have very few options for gainful employment and meaningful education. Because of these and other factors beyond their control, youth often turn to alternate communities like gangs to find solace and acceptance. Rather than lock young people up for the rest of their lives, our nation ought to provide adequate programming aimed at youth violence prevention, job training, and mental health services.
One-size-fits-all sentencing policies and insufficient programs for prisoner re-entry services raise the important question: do we, as a nation, want to continue our failed “tough on crime” policies, or should we be smart on crime? In a 2013 interview with America Magazine, Pope Francis said, “God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else.”
The Jesuit Conference actively supports legislation to increase funding for re-entry services, create additional programming for youth violence prevention and employment opportunities, and address mass incarceration by reforming sentencing policy for non-violent drug offenses.