When Pope Francis comes to Washington this month, he will give a voice to the many disadvantaged, poor and incarcerated individuals who often struggle to be heard. His Holiness will no doubt repeat his message of equality and fairness: “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 — God is in this person’s life.”
The Catholic faith teaches us that all people deserve mercy and justice. Our American values call upon us to support equality and second chances. Together, these fundamental principles can inform how we respond to the most pressing issues for our country. One of those critical issues is the growing crisis in our criminal justice system.
The United States incarcerates more of its people than any other industrialized country. That is not a badge of honor. It is shameful. Millions of Americans, disproportionately poor and from minority communities, are separated from their families for far longer than is necessary to preserve public safety. If we are to stand as a great and good nation, we must change our ways.
Thanks to leaders like Pope Francis and so many others who want to improve our criminal justice system, our prison population is being given a voice, and Americans are listening. As a result, there is a growing consensus about the inequity in our system, and the urgent need to reform our criminal justice system. Many states have led the way on this reform, and now Congress must join the effort by restoring fairness to our criminal justice system. Democrats and Republicans, faith leaders and activists have joined together for the cause of criminal justice reform. For the families most affected by our current system, the time to act is now.
Mandatory minimum sentences are immoral and unjust. These draconian sentences run counter to our faith and values. They disproportionately impact communities of color, and they do not make us safer. Congress must pass legislation that ends these policies once and for all. And we must not be satisfied with just preventing future injustice, we must make things right for those who have already paid too heavy a price. Applying these reforms retroactively will ensure that those currently serving unfair sentences can be reunited with their families.
But we cannot stop there. With more than 2 million people behind bars, and 650,000 ex-offenders being released each year, we must support and improve crucial programs that reduce crime and increase public safety. We must give those who have served their sentences a second chance. In 2000, the Catholic bishops issued a pastoral statement that declared: “We are all sinners, and our response to sin and failure should not be abandonment and despair, but rather justice, contrition, reparation, and return or reintegration of all into the community.” This is a value that we as Americans share. It is one that we must live up to. President Obama was right to commute the sentences of 46 individuals this summer, but we must ask ourselves what kind of second chance are we given those who are released from prison? Will they be able to get a job, enroll in school, find a place to live? And how do we expect them to reintegrate if they are denied the chance to build a new life?
Catholic Charities devotes much of its mission to providing services to ex-offenders reentering our society. The Second Chance Act helps states and counties across the country implement reentry programs that have successfully reduced crime and saved money. They provide support for former inmates in the form of job training, education, and access to mental health treatment. With services and support from case workers who believe in them, those returning to society are more likely to succeed, and we all benefit. This important work relies on support from Congress, and specifically requires reauthorizing the Second Chance Act. We need to pass this bipartisan bill that supports state and local reentry programs, and we must end the injustice caused by mandatory minimum sentences. Only then can Congress move toward a justice system that lives up to its name.
When members of Congress take part in the highly anticipated visit of the Holy Father to the Capitol, they should relish the history of the moment and find inspiration in his words. But we encourage all Americans, no matter their faith or their station, to reflect on this special moment and to be reminded of the moral calling that drives us as a nation toward justice. We are called to be a nation of equality and fairness. And as people of faith, we are committed to mercy and second chances. We have a real chance now to make an impact.
• Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was the archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont is ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.