January 28, 2016 — On January 25 the Supreme Court of the United States and President Obama both announced important decisions that will improve our nation’s justice system for the better. During his address to the U.S. Congress last September, Pope Francis offered “encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.” It is in the spirit of Pope Francis' words that the Jesuits of the United States applaud the Obama Administration and the Supreme Court for these life-changing actions.
The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana will now give individuals, who as children were sentenced to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole, an opportunity to appeal for judicial review and new sentences. Prior to the court’s decision, individuals sentenced in this manner as juveniles did not have the opportunity to challenge their sentences despite the Supreme Court’s finding in Miller v. Alabama (2012) that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are cruel and unusual.
In addition to the Supreme Court decision, President Obama announced a ban on the use of solitary confinement of juveniles in the federal prison system, as well as stricter guidelines for the use of solitary confinement on adult inmates. On any given day in the United States there are between 80,000 and 100,000 inmates in solitary confinement. World opinion, as expressed by the United Nations, has called for an absolute prohibition on the use of any form of solitary confinement beyond 15 days, stating that such a practice constitutes psychological torture. In the United States, 46 states use some form of solitary confinement that lasts between 30 days and indefinite confinement.
In response to these decisions, Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ, President of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, released the following statement: “These decisions reflect important truths about children and our justice system. First, all people, but especially children, have an inherent capacity to grow and change over time despite their worst mistakes. Any sentence that rules out the possibility of change is fundamentally flawed. Second, we have seen time and again the traumatic damage that solitary confinement causes young minds. The reliance on this practice has particularly impacted youth of color. Going forward, we hope lawmakers will further limit the use of solitary confinement to internationally accepted standards for all inmates.”
Despite these important victories, much more can and must be done to create a justice system that recognizes, in the pope’s words, that “God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster.” As a first step, Congress should pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would provide some relief for nonviolent drug offenders during sentencing and offer additional anti-recidivism programming for inmates in federal prison.
We must embrace a path toward more fundamental change in our criminal justice system. In order to confront mass incarceration, lawmakers must abolish excessively harsh sentences, including the death penalty, and address the racial and economic disparities in policing and prosecutions that continue to undermine our shared values of fairness and equality before the law. Policymakers must ensure access to adequate legal representation for impoverished individuals, and prison conditions must be reformed to offer constructive punishment that facilitates rehabilitation and reduces recidivism.
In order to give individuals the chance to reintegrate successfully in society, lawmakers must reevaluate policies that bar former offenders from accessing educational, housing and other opportunities. More resources should go to proven and innovative crime prevention methods rather than costly punishments with poor outcomes. In short, we must stop relying on the justice system as the answer to poverty, addiction, and unmet mental health needs in our country.