Pope Francis urged political leaders across the world to respect the dignity of inmates and offer them amnesty whenever possible.
Francis held a special Jubilee Mass Sunday for some 1,000 prisoners from 12 countries and their families, as well as prison chaplains and volunteers in St. Peter's Basilica.
"Sometimes, a certain hypocrisy leads to people considering you only as wrongdoers, for whom prison is the sole answer," Francis said in his homily.
Francis called for “a criminal justice system that is not exclusively punitive, but is open to the hope and the possibility of re-inserting the offender into society."
"I wish to reiterate the importance to reflect on the need for a criminal justice system that is not exclusively punitive, but is open to the hope and the possibility of re-inserting the offender into society," he said. "In a special way, I submit to the consideration of the competent civilian authorities in every country the opportunity to make, in this Holy Year of Mercy, an act of clemency towards those prisoners who will be considered eligible to benefit from this measure."
The pope told the inmates that all people “have made mistakes” and urged them to never give up hope in God's mercy.
The event was part of the Vatican's Holy Year of Mercy, which comes to an end later this month, and was followed by Francis’ traditional Sunday "Angelus" blessing in St. Peter's Square, where tens of thousands of worshippers had gathered, despite the morning rain.
Francis has called for a world-wide abolition of the death penalty and also opposes life in prison without parole.
The pontiff declared 2016 a special "Holy Year of Mercy" because he wants the Church's 1.2 billion members to be more merciful and less rigid towards sinners during this holy year, also known as a Jubilee.
Roman Catholic holy years usually occur every 25 years, the last one being in 2000, but popes may call extraordinary ones to draw attention to particular issues or momentous events.