WashU Expert: Pope Francis visit spotlights needed criminal justice system reform

Pope Francis is widely expected to address a range of issues when he visits the United States Sept. 22-27, including the crisis of mass incarceration in the U.S. criminal justice system.


The attention is needed and welcome, said a criminal justice reform expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

“The Pope’s scheduled visit to a prison in Philadelphia will spotlight one of the major issues we are facing as a country — the mass incarceration of millions of citizens, many for minor crimes, at cost of billions of dollars per year,” said Carrie Pettus-Davis, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School and noted national expert on criminal justice system reform and behavioral intervention development.

“A majority of our prison population is made up of people of color and people suffering from poverty or behavioral health disorders,” Pettus-Davis said. “The ‘tough on crime’ legislation of the 1980s and 1990s and the resulting ‘pipeline to prison’ for minor crimes has led to a host of economic and public health issues and social injustices.”

Pettus-Davis is co-director of the Smart Decarceration Initiative and founding director of the Brown School’s Concordance Institute for Advancing Social Justice.

She is leading a national conference to be held at Washington University Sept. 24-27 called “From Mass Incarceration to Effective and Sustainable Decarceration.”

“Our focus is to develop and evaluate effective alternatives to incarceration, from behavioral interventions to policy reforms,” Pettus-Davis said. “Increased attention and focus from Pope Francis on this issue will only serve to speed the process of reform.

“I’m eager to hear what he has to say.”