Pope Francis said Italy’s justice system has failed its prisoners by turning a blind eye to the most powerful criminals, a message delivered as lawmakers debate measures that may protect former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from punishment.
“It is easier to punish the small fry, but let the big fish swim free in the water,” Francis said in a meeting with 200 prison chaplains at the Vatican today, according to a statement posted on Vatican Radio’s website. The pontiff instructed the chaplains to tell prisoners that he is praying for them.
The plight of Italy’s almost 65,000 prisoners has become an urgent issue in parliament since Berlusconi, a billionaire who served three terms as premier, lost his final appeal of a tax-fraud conviction in August. President Giorgio Napolitano, citing prison overcrowding, called on lawmakers in September to pass mass pardons or amnesties, while sidestepping mention of how any measures could affect 77-year-old Berlusconi.
Italy’s prisons are filled at 136 percent of official capacity, higher than the 117 percent in France and 99 percent in the U.S., according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. Italy’s 106 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants are more than the 101 in France and less than the 716 in the U.S. Of the 64,758 inmates in Italian prisons, 22,770 are foreigners, or about 35 percent, according to the Ministry of Justice.
Berlusconi, who was given a four-year prison sentence, is unlikely to spend a day in jail on the tax-fraud conviction, due to leniency guidelines and a mass pardon that he and former Prime Minister Romano Prodi passed in 2005 and 2006, respectively. He remains free while courts decide whether to place him under house arrest or in a supervised community-service program and denies all wrongdoing.
Berlusconi is also appealing separate convictions for illegal use of wiretaps, abuse of power and engaging a minor in prostitution.
The amnesty debate has divided parliament and split Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s coalition as lawmakers line up according to their affiliation with Berlusconi. Traditional adversaries like Davide Zoggia, a politician from Letta’s Democratic Party, have said measures to reduce the prison population must avoid any effect on Berlusconi’s trials. Members of Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party, including Minister for Constitutional Reforms Gaetano Quagliariello, have said the three-time premier shouldn’t be excluded.
In 2005, Berlusconi’s government approved a law giving some convicts over the age of 70 the option of serving sentences at home. Prodi, a long-time political adversary, passed a mass clemency that knocks three years off crimes committed before May 3, 2006. That measure was dedicated to now-deceased Pope John Paul II, who had requested a clemency provision in a 2002 address to parliament.