(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis on Thursday called on all men and women of good will to fight for the abolishment of the death penalty in “all of its forms” and for the improvement of prison conditions. The Pope was addressing a group of members of the International Association of Criminal Law whom he received in the Vatican.
In his discourse the Pope also addressed the need to combat the phenomena of human trafficking and of corruption. And he stressed that the fact that the enforcement of legal penalties must always respect human dignity.
In a dense and impassioned discourse to the Jurists assembled in the Vatican for a private audience, Pope Francis said that the “life sentence” is really a “concealed death sentence”, and that is why – he explained – he had it annulled in the Vatican Penal Code.
Many of the off-the-cuff comments during the Pope’s speech shone the light on how politics and media all too often act as triggers enflaming “violence and private and public acts of vengeance” that are always in search of a scape-goat.
Recalling the words of Saint John Paul II who condemned the death penalty as does the Catechism, Francis decried the practice and denounced “so-called extrajudicial or extralegal executions” calling them “deliberate homicides” committed by public officials behind the screen of the Law:
“All Christians and people of goodwill are called today to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty be it legal or illegal, in all of its forms, but also for the improvement of prison conditions in the respect of the human dignity of those who have been deprived of freedom. I link this to the death sentence. In the Penal Code of the Vatican, the sanction of life sentence is no more. A life sentence is a death sentence which is concealed”.
And Pope Francis had words of harsh criticism for all forms of criminality which undermine human dignity, there are forms of his – he said - even within the criminal law system which too often does not respect that dignity when criminal law is applied.
“In the last decades” – the Pope said – “there has been a growing conviction that through public punishment it is possible to solve different and disparate social problems, as if for different diseases one could prescribe the same medicine.”
He said this conviction has pushed the criminal law system beyond its sanctioning boundaries, and into the “realm of freedom and the rights of persons” without real effectiveness.
“There is the risk of losing sight of the proportionality of penalties that historically reflect the scale of values upheld by the State. The very conception of criminal law and the enforcement of sanctions as an ‘ultima ratio’ in the cases of serious offenses against individual and collective interests have weakened. As has the debate regarding the use of alternative penal sanctions to be used instead of imprisonment”.
Pope Francis speaks of remand or detention of a suspect as a “contemporary form of illicit hidden punishment” concealed by a “patina of legality”, as it enforces “an anticipation of punishment” upon a suspect who has not been convicted. From this – the Pope points out – derives the risk of multiplying the number of detainees still awaiting trial, who are thus convicted without benefiting from the protective rules of a trial. In some countries – he says – this happens in some 50% of all cases with the trickledown effect of terribly overcrowded detention centers:
“The deplorable conditions of detention that take place in different parts of the world are an authentic inhuman and degrading trait, often caused by deficiencies of criminal law, or by a lack of infrastructures and good planning. In many cases they are the result of an arbitrary and merciless exercise of power over persons who have been deprived of freedom.”
Pope Francis also speaks of what he calls “cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments and sanctions,” and compares detention in maximum-security prisons to a “form of torture”. The isolation imposed in these places – he says – causes “mental and physical” suffering that result in an “increased tendency towards suicide”. Torture – the Pope points out – is used not only as a means to obtain “confession or information”:
“It is an authentic ‘surplus’ of pain that is added to the woes of detention. In this way torture is used not only in illegal centers of detention or in modern concentration camps, but also in prisons, in rehabilitation centers for minors, in psychiatric hospitals, in police stations and in other institutions for detention or punishment”.
And Pope Francis said children must be spared the harshness of imprisonment – as must, at least in a limited way – older people, sick people, pregnant women, disabled people as well as parents if they are the sole guardians of minors or persons with disabilities.
The Pope also highlighted one of the criminal phenomena he has always spoken out against vehemently: human trafficking which - he says – is the result of that “cycle of dire poverty” that traps “a billion people” and forces at least 45 million to flee from conflict:
“Based on the fact that it is impossible to commit such a complex crime as is the trafficking of persons without the complicity, be it active or of omission of action of the State, it is evident that, when the efforts to prevent and combat this phenomenon are not sufficient, we find ourselves before a crime against humanity. This is even truer if those who are responsible for the protection of persons and the safeguard of their freedom become an accomplice of those who trade in human beings; in those cases the State is responsible before its citizens and before the international community”.
Pope Francis dedicates an ample part of his discourse to corruption. The corrupt person – according to the Pope – is a person who takes the “short-cuts of opportunism” that lead him to think of himself as a “winner” who insults and persecutes whoever contradicts him. “Corruption” – the Pope says “is a greater evil than sin”, and more than “be forgiven, must be cured”.
“The criminal sanction is selective. It is like a net that captures only the small fish leaving the big fish to swim free in the ocean. The forms of corruption that must be persecuted with greatest severity are those that cause grave social damage, both in economic and social questions – for example grave fraud against public administration or the dishonest use of administration”.
Concluding, Pope Francis exhorted the jurists to use the criteria of “cautiousness” in the enforcement of criminal sanctions. This – he affirmed – must be the principle that upholds criminal law:
“The respect for human dignity must operate not only to limit the arbitrariness and the excesses of State officials, but as a criteria of orientation for the persecution and the repression of those behaviors that represent grave attacks against the dignity and the integrity of the human person”.