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Pope's U.S. Visit Spurs Catholic Support For Criminal Justice Reform


The Pope's visit to the U.S. next week is generating excitement across Washington, and advocates who want to overhaul the criminal justice system are hoping the Pope will lend his popularity to their cause. They want to push lawmakers to reduce long prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and support early release. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: In one of his first acts as Pope, Francis washed the feet of prisoners. He's held mass inside prison. And to this day, he continues to call in inmates he met back in Argentina to check in on them.

JONATHAN REYES: Pope Francis has given us a tremendous visible sign in ministry of what it means to actually care for people who are incarcerated.

JOHNSON: Jonathan Reyes works on justice policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

REYES: And it's rooted in Pope Francis's vision of mercy. He's often said when he goes to a prison or a jail that, I've made decisions; we've all made decisions; if we made different decisions, we could be right there; that could be me.

JOHNSON: The Pope will visit a prison in Pennsylvania next week. And while he may not endorse specific criminal justice legislation, faith leaders are using the opportunity to press Congress for action. One of them is Reverend Maidstone Mulenga of the United Methodist Church, talking here at news conference near St. Patrick's Church in Washington.

REVEREND MAIDSTONE MULENGA: We should be ashamed that there are more young black men heading to prison than heading to school. Therefore, we stand united in asking Congress, the White House and all our state legislators to bring an end to this mass incarceration.

JOHNSON: Mass incarceration - the idea that laws passed in the 1980s and '90s require judges to send tens of thousands of people to prison for nonviolent drug offenses. Lawmakers from both parties have proposed legislation that would give judges more discretion to sentence those people. And they want to give prisoners credit toward early release if they go to school and attend drug treatment programs.

TIM HAFEY: This is a movement. This is a ground swell, and this is people on lots of different sides of other issues that all agree on this.

JOHNSON: That's Tim Hafey (ph), a former U.S. attorney in Virginia who's been mobilizing other prosecutors to back what he calls smarter sentencing policy.

HAFEY: And law enforcement - again, I was one of them. I was a line prosecutor for many years.

JOHNSON: Not everyone on Capitol Hill is convinced of the need for big changes. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, leads the Judiciary Committee. Grassley's expressing some reservations about getting rid of tough, mandatory minimum penalties. He's expected to unveil a reform proposal sometime this month. And in the U.S. House, Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, is crafting his own bills, likely to be more limited than advocates desire. That's par for the course says Ohio State University professor Douglas Berman.

DOUGLAS BERMAN: Even when we get legislative changes in recent years, it's tended to be of the half-a-loaf variety.

JOHNSON: Lately, he says, reports about violent crime and heroin abuse are complicating the picture. And as the presidential campaign intensifies, Berman says, movement on a justice system overhaul will only get harder.

BERMAN: The reason, I think, the political season makes it uniquely difficult to do criminal justice reform is the soundbites tend to play towards reform that gets tougher rather than that does more sophisticated, nuanced changes.

JOHNSON: Berman says advocates who want to see changes may want to focus on states, which makes both political and practical sense. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.