In a recent message to legal professionals, Pope Francis warned that increasingly harsh sentencing does not solve social problems or reduce crime, but instead leads to prison overcrowding and increasing violence in prisons.
The Pope suggested to participants in the 19th Congress of the International Criminal Law Association and the 3rd Congress of the Latin American Association for Penal Law and Criminology that the response to crime should focus not on punishing the offender, but on repairing the damage caused by crime and on rehabilitation.
Pope Francis observed that “there is a necessary asymmetry between crime and punishment, that an eye or a broken tooth cannot be restored by taking or breaking another. It is a matter of bringing justice to the victim, not punishing the aggressor,” and “in our societies we tend to think that crimes are solved when we capture and sentence the criminal, largely avoiding the damage caused or without paying sufficient attention to the situation in which the victims find themselves.” It would be a mistake, he said, “to identify reparation solely with punishment, to confuse justice and vengeance, which can only contribute to increasing violence.”
Observing that crime is frequently “rooted in economic and social inequality,” and that society “discards those who are not at the top and prevents the slow, the weak or the less gifted from taking an open road in life,” the Pope suggested that condemning those who commit crimes is counter-productive. Rather, he said, “responsible people” must “do everything possible to correct, improve and educate the person so that he is able to mature in respects, so he is not discouraged and faces the damage caused, rethinking his life without being crushed by the weight of his miseries.”
The Pope included the news media in his warning against “condemning the suspects to social disparagement before being judged or forcing victims, for sensationalist purposes, to publicly relive their suffering.” Acknowledging the role of media in promoting the politics of anger and fear that drives excessive sentencing, the Pope underscored the importance of accurate reporting that does not “contribute to creating alarm or social panic when they provide news of criminal activities.”
The “great challenge that we must all face,” he concluded, is to help incarcerated people “to rehabilitate, to re-embark upon the path of good, to be authentic people who move on from their miseries to become merciful themselves.” Rather than “suppressing, discouraging and isolating” those convicted of crimes, “the Church proposes a form of justice that is humanising, genuinely reconciliatory, a justice that leads the wrongdoer, through an educative path of encouraged penance, to rehabilitation and total reinsertion in the community.”