Canada and the United States share a 5,525-mile border and many common problems, including high poverty levels, extreme inequality, racial tension and a criminal justice system in need of radical overhaul. On behalf of the Jesuits of Canada and the U.S., the Office of Justice and Ecology (OJE) seeks to address these injustices by focusing our advocacy efforts on economic justice, workers’ rights, funding for government anti-poverty programs, criminal justice reform, youth and gang violence prevention, and Native American/First Nations concerns. The OJE supports the Conference of Catholic Bishops and many other faith-based and secular organizations in their advocacy efforts and works with the U.S. government and people of faith to ensure that people can live in a society that recognizes and lifts up their God-given dignity.
In 2015, over 43 million, or 13.5% of Americans lived in poverty. While the recovery from the Great Recession of 2008 is fully underway, the poorest and most vulnerable in our society have not shared these benefits. Since 1968, the real value of the federal minimum wage has declined in value to the point that a minimum wage earner makes $15,080 annually, a full $5,340 below the federal poverty line for a family of three. Employers are only required to pay “tipped workers” $2.13 per hour. These workers have not received a raise in twenty-five years and are twice as likely to live in poverty and depend on programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This reality stands in contrast to the Catholic Church’s demand that “all people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just benefits and wages, to decent working conditions, as well as to organize and join unions or other associations.”
Criminal Justice and Juvenile Justice
The United States makes up less than 5% of the world’s total population, but incarcerates 22% of the world’s prisoners. The majority of prisoners in the federal system are serving sentences for non-violent drug offenses. Almost all of the 2.2 million prisoners in the United States will return to their communities at some point in their lives. Given budget cuts made by Congress to vital prisoner re-entry services over the past decade, it is no surprise that nearly 50% of individuals returning to their communities will be re-arrested at some point after their release. Upon release, many of these returning citizens will face legal discrimination in access to employment, housing, and public assistance programs, exacerbating the difficult challenge of effectively re-entering society.
Juveniles in particular face many challenges in our justice system. Despite a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that banned the use of mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, the United States remains the only country in the world where children can still be sentenced to die in prison through life without parole sentences. Oftentimes, youth born into poor communities have very few options for gainful employment and meaningful education. Because of these and other factors beyond their control, youth often turn to alternate communities like gangs to find solace and acceptance. Rather than lock young people up for the rest of their lives, our nation must provide adequate programming aimed at youth violence prevention, job training, and mental health services.
The OJE supports legislation to increase funding for re-entry services, create additional programming for youth violence prevention and employment opportunities, and address mass incarceration by reforming sentencing policy for non-violent drug offenses.
Protecting Government Programs that Serve the Poor and Vulnerable
In recent years, many proposals put forth by Congress and the executive branch have cut critical government programs which serve low-income families, prisoners, at risk-youth, the unemployed and the vulnerable. In the face of historic deficits, the United States faces unavoidable choices about how to balance needs and resources and allocate burdens and sacrifices. These choices are economic, political, and moral. As people of faith, we believe the moral measure of the debate is how the poorest and most vulnerable people fare. Along with the Catholic Bishops Conference and faith-based groups across the country, the Jesuits of Canada and the U.S. have prioritized advocacy initiatives which seek to protect funding for critical government programs that serve low-income and vulnerable people.
The Office of Justice and Ecology has actively supported efforts to raise the minimum wage, expand tax credits for low-income families, and protect funding for hunger relief programs and public housing assistance.
The Jesuit Response
Following is a sampling of the many transformative Jesuit ministries with whom our office partners:
- Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehab, and re-entry program in the country, works tirelessly to ensure that formerly gang or prison involved youth have meaningful employment and mental health services.
- The Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative employs Ignatian Spirituality in its work accompanying incarcerated youth and adults while doing advocacy on their behalf.
- Proyecto Pastoral at Dolores Mission has been a crucial advocate for affordable housing, immigrants’ rights, quality education, and access to employment in Los Angeles.
- The Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola New Orleans does research and advocacy on issues facing low-income residents of the Gulf South.
- The Kalmanovitz Institute for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University uses the latest research findings in its advocacy on workers’ rights.
- The Pope Francis Center in Detroit, Michigan addresses many of the challenges facing homeless men and women.
- The services at St. Francis Mission on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota include substance abuse treatment, a dental clinic, food pantry, and a school for low-income members of the Rosebud Sioux tribe.
In conjunction with these ministries, the Jesuit Conference is actively supporting legislation to raise the federal minimum wage, increase funding for re-entry services, create additional programming for youth violence prevention and employment opportunities, and address mass incarceration by reforming sentencing policy for non-violent drug offenses.
Reports, Statements, and Sign-On Letters
- Letter – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – March 2019
- Youth PROMISE Act Support Letter
- Criminal Justice Reform Principles
- Faith Reflection on the Federal Budget
- Fair Chance Hiring Support Letter
- Smarter Sentencing Act Support Letter
- Second Chance Act Reauthorization Support Letter
- Minimum Wage Support Letter