Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ (Mt. 9:13)
In the Gospels, the Pharisees challenge the disciples by asking them why Jesus keeps company with sinners. Jesus reminds them that it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. He tells the Pharisees, “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mt 9:13).The Pharisees are quick to judge and condemn. But Jesus teaches them another way, the way of mercy.
In reflecting on our nation’s prisons and jails, the continuing pervasiveness of the death penalty, the many people, especially minorities, sentenced to years in prison for non-violent crimes, as well as recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, we are compelled to ask: Do we, as a nation, desire mercy or sacrifice?
The United States imprisons more people per capita than any other nation in the world. In the recent study, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, researchers concluded that in the last 40 years, the rise of incarceration in the United States has been “historically unprecedented and internationally unique.”
A review of the data paints a startlingly dark picture, one that stresses punishment rather than mercy and healing. In 1973, federal and state prisons held close to 200,000 adults. As of today there are approximately 2.2 million people in America’s prisons and jails. Although the U.S. makes up just 5 percent of the world’s population, we have nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
Incarceration costs for federal, state and local governments have been astounding. At approximately $80 billion annually, only state level Medicaid spending has increased faster in the last two decades. More importantly, there has been tremendous cost in human life, and in broken communities and families.
Minorities have been disproportionately impacted by our nation’s sentencing policies. Today, minorities make up 60 percent of the U.S. prison population. Hispanics are twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites and, shockingly, one in three black males can expect to go to prison at some point in his lifetime.
Our Catholic moral tradition calls us to build a culture of healing, restoration and mercy rather than retribution. Centuries ago, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that punishment for its own sake can never be justified. In the Summa Theologica he wrote, “Penalties are not sought for their own sake, because this is not the era of retribution; rather, they are meant to be corrective by being conducive either to the reform of the sinner or the good of society…”
The U.S. bishops in their 2000 pastoral statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, wrote, “We are all sinners, and our response to sin and failure should not be abandonment and despair, but rather justice, contrition, reparation, and a return or re-integration of all into the community.”
One way the Church is responding is by supporting restorative and criminal justice reform efforts in national policy. For example, the USCCB supports the Second Chance Act (S. 1690/H.R. 3465), which authorizes funding for important reentry programs that assist people leaving incarceration. Programs focusing on housing, substance abuse and mental health treatment, job training, etc., help people transition back into the community. Another piece of legislation the USCCB supports, the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410/H.R. 3382), will help begin reform of our nation’s harsh mandatory minimum sentencing policies. This legislation will give judges options to reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenses which excessively impact minorities.
While punishment and correction of those who have harmed others and society can be just, punishments must fit the crime. Our focus should not be on retribution or punishment for punishment’s sake, but to lift up human dignity, healing and restoration for both victims of crime and those who commit crime.
Pope Francis reminds us that the “Lord never tires of forgiving us, never.” Today, we must ask ourselves, do we desire mercy or sacrifice?
Anthony J. Granado is a policy advisor at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.
Check out organizations supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development working on civil rights.