15 September 2015, The Tablet

Christian leaders urge Pope to tackle US penal system

by Richard Szczepanowski for Catholic News Service

Christian leaders are hoping to use the visit of Pope Francis to the US later this month to press for penal reform. 

The Walk With Francis campaign - which advocates restorative justive rather than retribution - wants Pope Francis to highlight the US criminal justice system when he speaks to US Congress on 24 September. Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, joined with other leaders to advocate for a criminal justice system that "aids those who have paid their debt (to society) and are ready to rejoin us".

Caption: Monsignor John Enzler

"Criminal justice reform is something that we've talked about. It's been on our radar screen for a while," the cardinal said. "We want a system that says, 'We welcome you back into our society. We welcome you back into our community. We welcome you back to be a productive member of society.'"

The Christian leaders, in a news conference organised by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Pope Francis' visit to the US is an opportune time to advocate for sentencing reform laws and laws to counter recidivism. Pope Francis is a frequent visitor to those in prison, and will visit prisoners at a Philadelphia correctional center on 27 September.

"During this momentous visit, we will walk with Francis when he speaks to Congress, visits the White House and addresses the United Nations," said Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the USCCB's Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development. "We will also Walk with Francis when he visits Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia."

Reyes noted that the United States - with its estimated 2.3 million people in prison - represents 5 per cent of the world's population and 25 per cent of the world's prison population. He added that one in three African-American males will at one time or another be imprisoned.

"There is currently an active debate on [criminal justice] reform that is bipartisan and interreligious," Mr Reyes said. He said that as lawmakers consider reform legislation, "this is a great moment to walk with Francis".

The Walk With Francis Pledge campaign - jointly sponsored the Archdiocese of Washington and its Catholic Charities arm - invites people to serve others in their community and then share their pledge on social media through prayer and learning about the faith; through charitable service to others; and through taking action to spread the Gospel in families, workplaces and public policy.

"Pope Francis gives us a very visible sign how to care for those incarcerated. His is a pastoral approach," Reyes said.

Monsignor John Enzler, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, pointed out that Catholic charities have for nearly two decades run a "welcome home" programme to assist those how have formerly been imprisoned.

Prisoners in Philadelphia made a chair for the Pope's visit to WashingtonPrisoners in Philadelphia made a chair for the Pope's visit to Washington


"This is an effort to say, 'We are here to greet you; we are here to welcome you,'" the priest said. He said the programme offers former prisoners a variety of assistance, including mentoring, and support with employment, housing, health issues and counselling. He said the program assisted 1,100 people last year. "We are not huge, but we are effective," he said.

Rudolph Washington, who is currently in the programme, said his participation "has given me a new lease on life and helped me learn about myself. I am grateful." Mr Washington will be inside St. Patrick's Church on 24 September when Pope Francis visits there.

Other speakers at the news conference included a Methodist minister, the Reverend Maidstone Mulenga, the assistant to Bishop Marcus Matthews of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. "The Methodist Church is committed to Walk With Francis, especially for people impacted and severely harmed by the criminal justice system," Reverend Mulenga said. "We should be ashamed that there are more young black men in prison than in college."

He said that the call for reform of the criminal justice system "shows (those incarcerated) they are not forgotten. They are loved. We do not believe in retribution. Restorative justice is our call," he added.

Craig DeRoche, a former speaker of the Michigan House, and currently vice president of the Justice Fellowship, said Pope Francis' "example of compassion and care" shows us we can make a difference".

Justice Fellowship is the public policy arm of Prison Fellowship, an evangelical Christian outreach to prisoners, former prisoners and their families that was founded by Chuck Colson, a former aide to President Richard Nixon. Justice Fellowship advocates for criminal justice reform based on the principles of restorative justice found in the Bible.

The outreach organised a campaign asking prisoners to write letters addressed to the pope.

"Pope Francis has demonstrated faith through humility," Mr DeRoche said. "It is wonderful to see Catholics, evangelicals and Methodists working together to care about prisoners."

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