Pope Francis in Brazil

(Image: Tânia Rêgo/ABr – Agência Brasil)


We all want a piece of the pope—or at least a piece of the Pope-a-Palooza. Here in DC, our hysteria greets the Catholic leader with bobble-headed popes, papal-themed cocktails and YOPO (“You Only Pope Once”) cologne.

With the fanfare of an international rock star, Pope Francis is being welcomed to the U.S. by adoring fans, Catholics and non-Catholics, the religious and the agnostic.  We have a collective hope that he will bestow mercy and help upon us—for the poor, for immigrants, for working families, for the incarcerated, for the climate.

We want Francis to deliver to us the promise of the prayer of his namesake, St. Francis:

Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”

Racism, Over-criminalization and Over-incarceration in the U.S.

But, could even a pope deliver on such heavenly hopes in a place like the U.S.? With a conservative House and Senate, austerity continues to reign, keeping the poverty rate relatively high in the world’s richest nation. Hatred festers as the racial divide deepens. Black Lives Matter activists face angry masses still asserting their right to fly the Confederate Flag on public grounds. A white supremacist enters an African-American church and murders the prayerful churchgoers at point blank range.

Cell phone cameras catch police officers targeting, shooting, beating and killing unarmed black men, women and children. Presidential candidates compete over who can build the best barrier to keep immigrants and refugees from Latin America out. Poor children, black and Latino children, disabled children, and Muslim children are criminalized in our schools and end up before judges for nothing more than childish behavior; or, sometimes, as in the recent case of Ahmed Mohamed—for laudable behavior.

For even the most faithful, it’s difficult to see from where the hope, light and joy would come.

Pope and Prison Reform

But on one egregiously unjust front, there just might be enough of a post-partisan political opening that a pontifical prayer could create real progress: mass incarceration and the abuse suffered by our prisoners and incarcerated youth. On these issues, the pope has been vocal and compelling.

Just 10 days after his installation as pope, Francis stunned the world by bathing and kissing the feet of incarcerated youth, including girls and Muslims. He has gone on record saying, “States must abstain from the criminal beating of children, who have not fully developed to maturity and for this reason cannot be held responsible.” He has condemned deplorable prison conditions and railed against the death penalty and also stated that “[a] life sentence is just a death penalty in disguise.”

The pope  condemns the criminalization of poor black and brown people, saying, “there is at times a tendency to deliberately fabricate enemies: stereotyped figures who represent all the characteristics that society perceives or interprets as threatening. The mechanisms that form these images are the same that allowed the spread of racist ideas in their time.”

With his status, values, and expressed public sentiments, it seems the pope will challenge policymakers in the U.S. to confront at least some of  linked problems of poverty, racism and over-incarceration. And they just might listen.

Post-partisan Moment?

I don’t want to overstate agreement on the depth, causes, and remedies for these problems with the U.S. criminal justice system among liberal and conservative lawmakers, but there is a surprising opening of a post-partisan, if you will, impulse to change that which is causing mass incarceration, over-criminalization, and an overburdening of federal, state and local budgets.

A  national initiative called #cut50, endorsed by Republican and Democratic lawmakers and activists, has the goal of reducing our incarcerated population—over 2.3 million people—by half in ten years. President Obama is focusing on several programs for assisting citizens returning from prison. Movements for sentencing reform, ending mass incarceration, eliminating juvenile justice detention facilities and providing assistance for re-entry after incarceration are taking hold all over the country. Because our system has become so financially burdensome, a cost of over $80 billion per year, conservatives and conservative lawmakers also see the problem and are willing to work across party lines to look for solutions.

With criminal justice reform serving as a key piece of the pope’s message—and one that goes far beyond that of the cost of incarceration—he may be able to take advantage of this post-partisan moment and move some hearts and minds—and ideologies—toward real reform.

Bring on the Pope-a-Palooza, but bring with it a serious effort to end the over-criminalization and mass incarceration of our nation’s poor, African-American and immigrant populations.

Karen Dolan directs the Criminalization of Poverty Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent report, The Poor Get Prison: The Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty, can be read here.

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