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September 18, 2015

"Cuba to release 3,522 prisoners on the eve of Pope Francis’ visit; why can’t Obama do the same?"

PopeFrancisIsis-v2The provocative question in the title of this post is the title of this notable San Francisco Bay View commentary. Here is how it starts:

Just prior to the visit of Pope Francis to Cuba on Sept. 19, the Cuban government has announced the release of 3,522 people being held in the country’s jails.  This humanitarian gesture will include prisoners who are over 60 years of age, younger than 20, those with chronic illnesses, women and those who are close to their release dates.

Why couldn’t Obama follow the Cuban example before Pope Francis continues on his tour to the U.S. on Sept. 22?  The United States, which has the dubious distinction of having the largest per capita prison population in the world, is overflowing with people who are primarily incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, on drug charges, or being mentally ill and poor.  Of the 2.5 million people in jails and prisons in this country, a vastly disproportionate number are people of color.

As the Obama presidency winds down, with nothing to lose, he could do the right thing by releasing an equal percentage of the prison population as the Cubans did.  Now that would be a humanitarian gesture that a war torn world could appreciate and a gesture of peace with justice to the visiting Pope.  It would amount to the freedom of tens of thousands of people.

Though I am suspect of any accounting of Cuba's incarceration levels (or its propaganda about recent releases), the latest estimate of its imprisoned population is around 57,500.  Consequently, its release of more than 3,500 prisoners amounts to freeing more than 6% of its incarcerated population.  A comparable effort by President Obama, if we focus on the entire local, state and federal incarcerated US population, would require the release of more than 135,000 persons imprisoned in the United States. Even if Prez Obama only released 6% of the current federal prison population, he would still need to grant over 12,000 federal offenders their freedom to make a gesture for the Pope comparable to what Cuba is claiming it has done.

I am not expecting to Prez Obama (or any state's Governor) to make a mass clemency gesture like this for the Pope's visit to the US.  But, as this new NPR story highlights, there are a number of criminal justice reform advocates who are hopeful that, at the very least, the Pope's visit will help kick-start federal criminal justice reform efforts. The NPR piece is headlined "Pope's U.S. Visit Spurs Catholic Support For Criminal Justice Reform," and it highlights that the "Pope will visit a prison in Pennsylvania next week and ... and faith leaders are using the opportunity to press Congress for action."

Some prior related posts on Pope Francis and criminal justice reform:

September 18, 2015 at 07:13 AM | Permalink


"Consequently, its release of more than 3,500 prisoners amounts to freeing more than 6% of its incarcerated population."


Hmmmm. Cuba is a tyranny. No one on that island is "free."

Posted by: federalist | Sep 18, 2015 9:25:18 AM

Stealing pants off a clothes line. In Cuba, sentencing law and policy gets you ten years. Every block has an old lady reporting every utterance to the secret police. Needless to say, there is little crime or dissent in Cuba. So releasing that number would be different here.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 18, 2015 11:29:12 PM

It must be noted that none of the prisoners being released were the ones being jailed indefinitely for being dissidents.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Sep 19, 2015 2:12:02 PM

Obama should ignore the Pope. Maybe prosecute some pedophile priests who go scott free.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Sep 20, 2015 12:01:48 AM

@Liberty 1st:

Obama ignore the Pope? He is going to be his new best friend! He will be bringing in a man who will essentially canonize the Democratic Party with the agenda of income redistribution, migrant influx, and man-made climate change. Essentially, he is banking on the fact that the Pope will essentially make the Catholic Church the largest donor base to the Democratic party, ensuring the new president will not back down on his agenda items, creating a quagmire for legal issues and throwing constitutional doctrine out the window.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Sep 21, 2015 7:52:34 PM

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