A president, an archbishop, and a very flawed prison system
Last week, two prominent leaders took time out of their busy schedules to visit people serving out sentences behind bars. And interestingly enough, they came away with very similar conclusions about the flaws in America's criminal justice system.
President Barack Obama made national headlines when he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison by taking a trip to El Reno Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma. Earlier in the week, the president had commuted the sentences of 46 federal prisoners convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, saying that "their punishments didn't fit the crime" and they deserve a second chance.
After touring the facility and meeting personally with six inmates, Obama told the press it is normal for young people to make mistakes, reiterating his argument that people deserve second chances. "I think we have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think it's normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system. It's not normal. It's not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things," he said.
Obama is correct in saying this is not what happens in other countries--the United States ranks first in the world in the number of people currently incarcerated, with 2.2 million, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. China, with a prison population of 1.6 million, is the only country that even comes close to incarcerating as many of its citizens as the United States.
Meanwhile, here in Chicago, Archbishop Blase Cupich made a visit to the Cook County Jail with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. Like Obama, Cupich took the time to speak with inmates about their reasons for being behind bars, noting the disproportionate numbers of "sick, poor, vulnerable, and disenfranchised individuals" being housed there. He met people who had been convicted of drug charges who were trying to "emerge from the slavery of their addiction and get on with their lives," and not surprisingly, Cupich also called for second chances. “There are people who have made mistakes and are looking for ways to move forward,” he said.
Perhaps it is not surprising that President Obama and Archbishop Cupich would reach similar conclusions after their prison visits, but it is good timing that both made such strong statements within the same week. Reform of the criminal justice system in the United States is desperately needed, but it will take the strong will of political leaders, religious leaders, and ordinary citizens to make it happen. Public statements like these are a perfect way to start the conversation.