Few organizations do more to prevent crime or heal its effects than the Catholic Church. Through many committed individual Catholics, prison ministry programs, parish outreach efforts, Catholic schools, diocesan peace and justice offices, community organizing projects, ex-offender reintegration programs, family counseling, drug and alcohol recovery programs, and charitable services to low-income people, the Catholic community responds to criminal justice concerns in a wide variety of ways.
But we can do more. This list of suggestions and resources is by no means exhaustive. Rather, it is intended to give individual Catholics, parishes, and dioceses some directions about programs and policies that reflect Catholic principles and values as we work together to implement this statement.
Teach Right from Wrong, Respect for Life, Forgiveness and Mercy Parish priests, Catholic educators, and a wide variety of other efforts assist parents in teaching children right from wrong, respect for life, and forgiveness and mercy. Catholics also can have an impact in their own families and communities, when they teach by example and demonstrate these values by their actions.
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Respect for human life—the cornerstone of Catholic social teaching—is a key to our work in criminal justice because we believe that the current culture of violence contributes to crime. We bishops urge Catholics to work against the violence of abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide. We call for renewed efforts to abolish the death penalty. In addition, Catholics must work to ensure that everyone has access to those things that enhance life and dignity: decent housing, a job with a living wage, and health care.
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In light of this, we seek to do the following in these reflections: Explore aspects of crime and punishment in our society Examine the implications of the Church's teaching for crime and punishment Apply principles of Catholic social teaching to the criminal justice system and suggest some directions for policy on crime and punishment Encourage action by Catholics to shape new alternatives Some Dimensions of Crime and Punishment in the United States Although overall crime rates in the United States rose significantly between and , the crime and victimization rates have fallen steadily since that time.
Some argue that high incarceration rates and tougher sentences have made the difference. Others point to community policing, economic prosperity, and fewer young people. Experts do not agree on the determining factors, suggesting that many forces, taken together, have contributed to this decline. But regardless of their impact, not all methods of reducing crime are consistent with the teachings of the Church and the ideals of our nation.
For example, even if the death penalty were proven to be a deterrent to crime, the Catholic bishops would still oppose its use because there are alternative means to protect society available to us today. Victims of Crime in the United States: In , about one out of every twenty-seven Americans over the age of twelve was the victim of a violent crime e. For example, in , the murder rate for young black men was victims per ,—seven times the rate for young white men. One and one-half million children under the age of eighteen or 2. Of these, 22 percent are under the age of five and 58 percent are less than ten.
Most of the parents African American children are nine times more likely to have a parent incarcerated 7 percent than white children 0. We encourage and stand with victims and those who assist them.
A fundamental moral measure of the criminal justice system is how it responds to those harmed by crime. Too often, the criminal justice system neglects the hurt and needs of victims or seeks to exploit their anger and pain to support punitive policies. Not victims in the usual sense but certainly personally affected by crime are peace officers and those who work in correctional facilities. This is difficult work especially for those who work on death row and participate in executions in the regular course of their duties. They too are often in need of healing and compassion.
We support steps to educate, train, evaluate, and counsel peace officers, consistent with a culture of life.
White-collar crime also costs our society in major ways. We all lose when industries fail to obey the laws that ensure that the land, water, and air are not harmed. People in positions of power and responsibility have particular obligations to live within the law and not to enrich themselves at the expense of others.
Punishment in the United States: The many forms of punishment for those who are convicted of crime in the United States vary, ranging from fines and probation to boot camps and chain gangs, to incarceration in jails and prisons, and finally to the death penalty. In , the imprisonment rate in America was per , offenders. This is six to twelve times higher than the rate of other Western countries. Mandatory minimum sentences are much more common as is the willingness to use isolation units. As of , thirty-six states and the federal government have constructed "supermax" prisons.
Additionally, the death penalty is being used with increasing frequency. In Texas and Virginia alone, nearly three hundred executions have taken place since , many of them within the last three years. And in California well over five hundred people are on death row. These statistics and policies reflect legislative action at the federal and state levels that is adopted by legislators seeking to appear "tough on crime" in response to often sensational media coverage of crime.
In many states, education, health and human services, and public transportation budgets remain stagnant or decline while more and more prisons are built. For some small towns facing losses in agriculture, mining, or manufacturing, the economic benefits from building a prison and offering related services are seen as economic development creating vital new jobs. But public debate rarely encourages serious dialogue about the costs of incarceration versus less costly alternatives, such as prevention, education, community efforts, and drug treatment.
Characteristics of the Inmate Population: The inmate population has risen from , in to a record two million inmates in Just as African and Hispanic Americans are victimized at higher rates, so too, are they incarcerated at higher rates: African Americans make up 12 percent of the U. Prison inmates have high rates of substance abuse, illiteracy, and mental illness.
According to the Department of Justice, nearly two million people are behind bars, of whom 24 percent are incarcerated for drug offenses, and nearly half were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they committed the crime 17 70 percent did not complete high school As many as , suffer from some form of mental illness 18 While the vast majority of inmates in the United States are men, the number of women being incarcerated has increased percent since , largely as a result of tougher drug laws.
This rate of increase is higher than the rate of increase for men.
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Seventy percent of female inmates are non-violent offenders, and an equal number have left children behind, often in foster care, as they enter prison. Therefore, the special circumstances of immigrants in detention centers is of particular concern. The Immigration and Naturalization Service INS uses a variety of methods to detain immigrants, some of them clearly inappropriate, such as placing detainees in prisons with convicted felons or in local jails where conditions are deplorable.
Recently enacted laws have resulted in the tripling of the number of non-citizens incarcerated and awaiting deportation, including women and minors. Many of these people an estimated five thousand out of the estimated twenty thousand immigrants under INS detention spend months or even years in detention centers because they are refused repatriation by their countries of origin. Others languish because they are victims of an overwhelmed INS bureaucracy. These lengthy stays place considerable hardship on other family members living in the United States or in their country of origin, many of whom have depended on the income of the person incarcerated.
Additionally, new rules allow for "expedited removal" of those seeking asylum—a process whereby INS officials turn away those fleeing persecution in their home countries. Those not quickly returned are placed in detention centers for weeks or even months until they receive an asylum hearing.
Offenders and Treatment: Since the s, a considerable debate has developed in the United States about whether treatment programs work and to what extent. No single type of treatment or rehabilitation program, however, works for every offender. The effectiveness of programs depends on many things, including type of offense, quality of the program, and family, church, and community support. One area of criminal activity that seems to respond to treatment is substance abuse. More is being learned about how substance abuse and crime are linked in the United States. According to a National Institute of Justice report, at the time of their arrest two-thirds of adults and half of juveniles tested positive for at least one drug.
We now turn our attention to our Catholic tradition and examine how it might help frame our nation's responses to crime. Scriptural, Theological, and Sacramental Heritage Every day Christians pray for justice and mercy in the prayer that Jesus taught us: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. The four traditional elements of the sacrament of Penance have much to teach us about taking responsibility, making amends, and reintegrating into community: Contrition: Genuine sorrow, regret, or grief over one's wrongs and a serious resolution not to repeat the wrong Confession: Clear acknowledgment and true acceptance of responsibility for the hurtful behavior Satisfaction: The external sign of one's desire to amend one's life this "satisfaction," whether in the form of prayers or good deeds, is a form of "compensation" or restitution for the wrongs or harms caused by one's sin Absolution: After someone has shown contrition, acknowledged his or her sin, and offered satisfaction, then Jesus, through the ministry of the priest and in the company of the church community, forgives the sin and welcomes that person back into "communion" Centuries ago, St.
Thomas Aquinas taught us that punishment of wrongdoers is clearly justified in the Catholic tradition, but is never justified for its own sake. A compassionate community and a loving God seek accountability and correction but not suffering for its own sake.
Current Issues in Criminal Justice
Punishment must have a constructive and redemptive purpose. Today these traditional teachings still shape our understanding of punishment. We begin with a belief in the existence of a natural moral law that resides within the hearts of individuals and within the life of the community. This moral code is common to all peoples and is never fully excused by external circumstances.
All are born with free will that must be nurtured and informed by spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical disciplines and by the community. Although not everyone has the same ability to exercise free will, each person is responsible for and will be judged by his or her actions according to the potential that has been given to him or her.