Archbishop's web site Denver Catholic Register Parishes Catholic Pastoral Center
November 8 , 2000
Bishops urge criminal justice reform
WASHINGTON (CNS) - During their Nov. 13-16 meeting in Washington, the U.S. bishops will vote on a proposed pastoral statement that urges major reforms of "our broken criminal justice system."
The document challenges trends toward mandatory prison sentences as well as "supermax" prisons and for-profit prisons. It recommends new efforts to rebuild the shattered lives of victims and offenders and "re-weave a broader social fabric of respect for life, civility, responsibility and reconciliation."
The draft concludes with a sidebar in which the bishops again call for an end to capital punishment.
The 42-page document - titled "Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice" - was drafted by the bishops' Domestic Policy Committee, chaired by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles. The bishops saw a preliminary version last June.
Cardinal Mahony said the committee tried to set out "a distinctively Catholic approach."
"We are guided by the paradox of Catholic teaching on crime and punishment," the document says. "We will not tolerate the crime and violence that threaten the lives and dignity of our sisters and brothers, and we will not give up on those who have lost their way.
"We seek both justice and mercy."
The cardinal said the committee consulted widely with Catholic chaplains, wardens, judges, lawyers, victims and ex-offenders. A number of their reflections are scattered throughout the text.
"Despite their different perspectives," the cardinal said, "they all agree that the current system is in need of a fresh approach: one that offers real rehabilitation for offenders, takes serious the concerns of victims and restores communities affected by crime."
The statement has four main sections: an introduction giving an overview of crime, victims and prisoners, including some 20,000 detained immigrants; the scriptural, theological and sacramental underpinnings of a Catholic approach; foundational principles on which new efforts should be built; and the church's mission in curbing crime and reshaping the criminal justice system.
Among many concerns highlighted, the document points out that African-Americans and Hispanic Americans are both victimized and incarcerated at higher rates than whites.
The draft calls the 1.5 million children under the age of 18 who have a parent in state or federal prison "another set of victims."
And it notes that, of a record 2 million Americans currently behind bars, 40 percent are drug offenders and 60 to 80 percent have a history of drug abuse. Because of tougher drug laws, it says, the number of women incarcerated since 1980 has jumped 300 percent.
"Too often," the document states, "the criminal justice system neglects the hurt and needs of victims or seeks to exploit their anger and pain to support punitive policies."
The proposed statement affirms the principle that "Christians are asked to see Jesus in the face of everyone," saying "both the most wounded victim and the most callous criminal retain their humanity."
It also advocates an option for the poor, asserting that failures to adequately address basic needs for food, shelter and health care "can be stepping stones on a path toward crime."
According to the draft, new approaches should be built on these foundations:
"Protecting society from those who threaten life, inflict harm, take property, and destroy the bonds of community."
"Rejecting simplistic solutions such as `three strikes and you're out' and rigid mandatory sentencing."
"Promoting serious efforts toward crime prevention and poverty reduction."
"Challenging the culture of violence and encouraging a culture of life."
"Offering victims the opportunity to participate more fully in the criminal justice process."
"Encouraging innovative programs of restorative justice that provide the opportunity for mediation between victims and offenders and offer restitution for crimes committed."
"Insisting that punishment have a constructive and rehabilitative purpose."
"Encouraging spiritual healing and renewal for those who commit crime."
"Making a serious commitment to confront the pervasive role of addiction and mental illness in crime."
"Treating immigrants justly."
"Placing crime in a community context and building on promising alternatives that empower neighborhoods and towns to restore a sense of security."