Before a joint session of Congress – a first for any Pope – Pope Francis called for an end to the death penalty around the globe. He praised efforts for repeal in the U.S., including the work of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Importantly, he linked the issue with a broader theme of criminal justice reform, saying, “I also offer 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.”
This is not the first time a Catholic Pope – or even Pope Francis – has made statements against the death penalty. Pope John Paul II called for an end to the death penalty in a visit to the U.S. in 1999. Since then, the annual number of executions in the U.S. has dropped by more than 60%, the number of new death sentences also dropped by more than 70%, and some of the most Catholic states in the nation have ended the death penalty altogether.1 Pope Francis also spoke out against the death penalty last March in a letter to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, calling the practice “unacceptable” regardless of the crime.
In response to the Pope’s statements about the death penalty, Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said he is “more open” to the idea of ending the death penalty. Gingrich, who converted to Catholicism several years ago, raised particular concerns about innocence, saying, “you do want to be careful not to execute somebody who you find later on, as we’ve found, to be innocent.” This marks a notable shift in Gingrich’s position on repeal, having shepherded the passage laws that expanded the Federal death penalty when he was House Speaker.
President Obama also seemed affected by the Pope’s words. A spokesman for the White House confirmed that, “the president’s views are influenced by statements that are made by the pope.” The President has stated in the past that he supports the death penalty, but he has raised concerns with how it is applied, particularly around race. After last summer’s botched execution in Oklahoma, he ordered the Justice Department to perform a review of the death penalty.
The Pope’s theme of hope and rehabilitation continued on a visit to a prison outside of Philadelphia. He did not hold back in his criticism of the U.S. prison system: “It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities.”
Last week, on the heels of the Pope’s visit, a bi-partisan group of Senators introduced a significant criminal justice reform package called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. The bill includes changes to mandatory minimums, limits solitary confinement for youth offenders, and more.
- New Jersey , Connecticut , New York , New Mexico , Illinois , Nebraska , per http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/09/most-catholic-states_n_4747647.html