"New approaches must move beyond the slogans of the moment (such as "three
strikes and you're out") and the excuses
of the past (such as "criminals are
simply trapped by their background"). Crime, corrections, and the search for
community require far more than the policy clichés of conservatives and
Conference of Catholic Bishops
November 15, 2000
Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and
A Catholic Perspective
on Crime and Criminal Justice
A Statement of the Catholic Bishops of the United States
We are still a long way from the time when our conscience can be certain of
having done everything possible to prevent crime and to control it effectively
so that it no longer does harm and, at the same time, to offer to those who
commit crimes a way of redeeming themselves and making a positive return to
society. If all those in some way involved in the problem tried to . . .
develop this line of thought, perhaps humanity as a whole could take a great
step forward in creating a more serene and peaceful society.
Pope John Paul II, July 9, 2000
Table of Contents
Victims of Crime in the United States
Crime and the Catholic Community
Some Dimensions of Crime and Punishment in the United States
Punishment in the United States
Characteristics of the Inmate Population
Detention of Immigrants
Offenders and Treatment
Human Life and Dignity
Scriptural, Theological, and Sacramental
Sacramental and Historical Heritage
Catholic Social Teaching
Human Rights and Responsibilities
Family, Community, and Participation
The Common Good
The Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
Subsidiarity and Solidarity
Policy Foundations and Directions|
Rejecting Simplistic Solutions
Promoting Serious Efforts Toward Crime Prevention and Poverty Reduction
Challenging the Culture of Violence
Offering Victims the Opportunity to Participate
Encouraging Innovative Programs
Insisting That Punishment Has a Constructive Purpose
Encouraging Spiritual Healing and Renewal
Making a Serious Commitment to Confront Addiction
Treating Immigrants Justly
Placing Crime in a Community Context
The Church's Mission|
Teach Right from Wrong, Respect for Life, Forgiveness and Mercy
Stand With Victims and Their Families
Reach Out to Offenders and Their Families
Advocate Policies That Offer Real Alternatives to Crime
Organize Diocesan Consultations
Work for New Approaches
Appendix: Suggestions for Action|
As Catholic bishops, our response to crime in the United States is a moral
test for our nation and a challenge for our Church. Although the FBI reports
that the crime rate is falling, crime and fear of crime still touch many lives
and polarize many communities. Putting more people in prison and, sadly, more
people to death has not given Americans the security we seek. It is time for a
new national dialogue on crime and corrections, justice and mercy,
responsibility and treatment. As Catholics, we need to ask the following: How
can we restore our respect for law and life? How can we protect and rebuild
communities, confront crime without vengeance, and defend life without taking
life? These questions challenge us as pastors and as teachers of the Gospel.
Our tasks are to restore a sense of civility and responsibility to everyday
life, and promote crime prevention and genuine rehabilitation. The common good
is undermined by criminal behavior that threatens the lives and dignity of
others and by policies that seem to give up on those who have broken the law
(offering too little treatment and too few alternatives to either years
in prison or the execution of those who have been convicted of terrible
New approaches must move beyond the slogans of the moment (such as "three
strikes and you're out") and the excuses of the past (such as "criminals are
simply trapped by their background"). Crime, corrections, and the search for
real community require far more than the policy clichés of conservatives and
A Catholic approach begins with the recognition that the dignity of the human
person applies to both victim and offender. As bishops, we believe that the
current trend of more prisons and more executions, with too little education
and drug treatment, does not truly reflect Christian values and will not
really leave our communities safer. We are convinced that our tradition and
our faith offer better alternatives that can hold offenders accountable and
challenge them to change their lives; reach out to victims and reject
vengeance; restore a sense of community and resist the violence that has
engulfed so much of our culture.
Crime and the Catholic Community
Many of our parishes dramatically reflect the human and other costs of so much
crime. The church doors are locked; the microphones hidden. Parishes spend
more on bars for their windows than on flowers for their altars. More
tragically, they bury young people caught in gang violence, the drug trade, or
the hopelessness that leads children to take their own lives. These parishes
reach out to prisoners and their families, offering help and hope to those
caught up in crime and the criminal justice system. They also struggle to
respond to the needs of crime victims: the parents who lose a child, the
elderly woman who is mugged, the shopkeeper who is robbed, the child whose
parent is in jail.
As bishops, teachers, and pastors, we seek to offer a perspective inspired by
our Catholic tradition to the national discussion on crime. For us, crime and
the destruction it brings raise fundamental questions about the nature of
personal responsibility, community, sin, and redemption. A distinctively
Catholic approach to these questions can offer society another way to
understand and respond to crime, its victims, and its perpetrators. We
approach this topic, however, with caution and modesty. The causes of crime
are complex. The ways to overcome violence are not simple. The chances of
being misunderstood are many.
In developing these reflections, we have consulted with Catholics who are
involved in every aspect of the criminal justice system: prison chaplains,
police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, probation and parole
officers, wardens, correctional officers, crime victims, offenders, families
of both victims and offenders, and treatment personnel. In our parishes,
schools, and Catholic Charities agencies, Catholics see firsthand the crushing
poverty and the breakdown of family life that often lead to crime and at the
same time care for prisoners, victims, and their families. All of their
experience and wisdom has been helpful to us.
As bishops, we offer a
word of thanks and support to those who devote their lives and talents to the
tasks of protection and restoration: chaplains and prison ministry volunteers,
police and corrections officers, prosecutors and defense attorneys, and
counselors. We call on others to join them in a new commitment to prevent
crime and to rebuild lives and communities. As ordained ministers committed to
service, deacons should be especially drawn to the challenge of Matthew 25:
"For I was . . . in prison and you visited me." We also wish to stand in
solidarity with crime victims in their pain and loss, insisting that all our
institutions reach out to them with understanding, compassion, and healing.
Many Catholics help to prevent and control crime, especially among our youth.
No one can take the place of parents, but grandparents, pastors, coaches,
teachers, mentors, as well as neighbors, parishioners, and community leaders
all help to guide, confront, and care for young people at risk.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that some Catholics have been
convicted of theft and drug dealing, spousal and child abuse, even rape and
murder. In fact, it is reported that more than thirty-seven thousand federal
prisoners (30 percent of the federal inmate population)1 are
baptized Catholic, many more Catholics are in local jails and state prisons,
and hundreds of thousands are on probation or parole. Catholics can also be
found among white-collar criminals whose illegal actions in businesses,
financial markets, and government halls seriously damage our common life and
All those whom we consulted seemed to agree on one thing: the status quo is
not really working—victims are often ignored, offenders are often not
rehabilitated, and many communities have lost their sense of security. All of
these committed people spoke with a sense of passion and urgency that the
system is broken in many ways. We share their concern and believe that it does
not live up to the best of our nation's values and falls short of our
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
- 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
1960 and 1991, the crime and victimization rates have fallen steadily since
that time.2 Why criminal activity has dropped in the last decade
has been the subject of considerable debate. 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 1998, about one out of every
twenty-seven Americans over the age of twelve was the victim of a violent
crime (e.g., murder, rape/sexual assault, robbery, aggravated and simple
assault) and approximately one out of every four American households suffered
a property crime (e.g., household burglary, auto theft).3 African
Americans and Hispanic Americans have been victimized at far higher rates than
others. For example, in 1990, the murder rate for young black men was 140
victims per 100,000—seven times the rate for young white men.4
Also affected by crime are the children left behind by incarcerated
parents—children who themselves are at risk for criminal activity. One and
one-half million children under the age of eighteen (or 2.1 percent) have a
parent in state or federal prison. Of these, 22 percent are under the age of
five and 58 percent are less than ten. Most of the parents (92.6 percent) are
fathers, and most are disproportionately African American (49.4 percent) and
Hispanic American (18.9 percent). African American children are nine times
more likely to have a parent incarcerated (7 percent) than white children (0.8
percent), and Hispanic American children are three times as likely (2.6
percent) as white children.5
In response to so much crime and the treatment of those touched by crime, a
strong and growing movement has emerged that advocates on behalf of crime
victims and seeks to make the justice system more responsive to their
concerns.6 We believe that these efforts deserve support. 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
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. It is reported that
the average business enterprise loses more than $9 a day per employee to fraud
and abuse or about 6 percent of its total annual revenue. More than $400
billion is lost annually to U.S. businesses and government by fraud and abuse.7
These crimes often go unacknowledged and unpunished, but they can have a
devastating impact on employees, investors, consumers, and taxpayers who pay
the price for corruption and dishonesty. 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 1998, the imprisonment rate in
America was 668 per 100,000 offenders. This is six to twelve times higher than
the rate of other Western countries.8 This astounding rate of
incarceration is due to policies such as "three strikes and you're out" and
"zero-tolerance" for drug offenders.9 As incarceration rates have
increased, so have other punitive measures. Mandatory minimum sentences are
much more common as is the willingness to use isolation units. As of 1997,
thirty-six states and the federal government have constructed "supermax"
prisons.10 These facilities isolate prisoners considered most
dangerous and confine them to small cells by themselves for twenty-two to
twenty-four hours each day. Additionally, the death penalty is being used with
increasing frequency. In Texas and Virginia alone, nearly three hundred
executions have taken place since 1976, 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.
The United States spends more than $35 billion annually on corrections. In
many states, education, health and human services, and public transportation
budgets remain stagnant or decline while more and more prisons are built.11
Also suffering from a diversion of public dollars for prison construction are
the very critical programs of probation and parole, halfway houses, community
treatment options, and other post-release programs. 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.12 Rural communities may not
have the social or physical infrastructure to handle either the facility
itself, the needs of the inmate's family, or the needs of the staff. 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 250,000 in 1972 to a record two million inmates in 2000. 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.S. population but
represent more than 49 percent of prisoners in state and federal prisons.13
Nationally, one in ten African American males is in prison, on probation, or
- Hispanic Americans make up 9 percent of the U.S. population but 19
percent of prisoners in state and federal prisons.15
Recent studies show that African, Hispanic, and Native Americans are often
treated more harshly than other citizens in their encounters with the criminal
justice system (including police activity, the handling of juvenile
defendants, and prosecution and sentencing).16 These studies
confirm that the racism and discrimination that continue to haunt our nation
are reflected in similar ways in the criminal justice system.
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 crime17
- 70 percent did not complete high school
- As many as 200,000 suffer from some form of mental illness18
While the vast majority of inmates in the United States are men, the number
of women being incarcerated has increased 600 percent since 1980, largely as a
result of tougher drug laws. This rate of increase is higher than the rate of
increase for men. Seventy percent of female inmates are non-violent offenders,
and an equal number have left children behind, often in foster care, as they
Detention of Immigrants: We bishops have a long history of supporting
the rights of immigrants. 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.20 Now the INS is required to detain and deport immigrants
who have committed an offense in the past, even if they have served a sentence
for that offense and are now contributing members of society. 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 1970s, a considerable debate has
developed in the United States about whether treatment programs work and to
what extent.21 Careful reviews of the literature on rehabilitation
have concluded that treatment does reduce recidivism. 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.22 Recent nationwide studies have
concluded that drug treatment is reducing drug use, criminal activity, and
physical and mental health problems, as well as increasing employment
These research studies also suggest that drug treatment is a very
cost-effective method to reduce substance abuse and crime.24 The
savings to tax payers from quality substance abuse treatment versus
imprisonment is significant (three to one in a recent RAND Corporation study).25
Furthermore, community-based substance abuse programs and programs that
address behaviors that lead people to crime are far less expensive than
similar programs in prison and produce effective and encouraging results.26
Finally, new studies confirm what our pastoral experience has demonstrated:
that physical, behavioral, and emotional healing happens sooner and with more
lasting results if accompanied by spiritual healing.27 Access to
worship and religious formation is not only guaranteed by the Constitution, it
is a significant element in rebuilding lives and changing behavior.
We now turn our attention to our Catholic tradition and examine how it might
help frame our nation's responses to crime.
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."
Every day Christians recognize both that we are guilty of sin and that we are
forgiven: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against
us." This common prayer, the Lord's Prayer, recognizes our failures and
offenses, and acknowledges our dependence on God's love and mercy.
Our Catholic faith can help us and others to go beyond the current debate and
gain a deeper understanding of how to reject crime, help heal its victims, and
pursue the common good. We wish to move away from the so-called "soft" or
"tough" approaches to crime and punishment offered by those at opposite ends
of the political spectrum.
St. Paul outlined our task when he told us to "test everything; retain what is
good. Refrain from every kind of evil" (1 Thes 5:21). He calls us to affirm
the demands of both justice and mercy, the place of punishment and
forgiveness, and the reality of free will and poor choices.
In the United States,
history tells us that the prison system was, in some ways, built on a moral
vision of the human person and society—one that combined a spiritual
rekindling with punishment and correction.28 But along the way,
this vision has too often been lost. The evidence surrounds us: sexual and
physical abuse among inmates and sometimes by corrections officers, gang
violence, racial division, the absence of educational opportunities and
treatment programs, the increasing use of isolation units, and society's
willingness to sentence children to adult prisons—all contributing to a high
rate of recidivism. Our society seems to prefer punishment to rehabilitation
and retribution to restoration thereby indicating a failure to recognize
prisoners as human beings.
In some ways, an approach to criminal justice that is inspired by a Catholic
vision is a paradox. We cannot and will not tolerate behavior that threatens
lives and violates the rights of others. We believe in responsibility,
accountability, and legitimate punishment. Those who harm others or damage
property must be held accountable for the hurt they have caused. The community
has a right to establish and enforce laws to protect people and to advance the
At the same time, a Catholic approach does not give up on those who violate
these laws. We believe that both victims and offenders are children of God.
Despite their very different claims on society, their lives and dignity should
be protected and respected. We seek justice, not vengeance. We believe
punishment must have clear purposes: protecting society and rehabilitating
those who violate the law.
We believe a Catholic vision of crime and criminal justice can offer some
alternatives. It recognizes that root causes and personal choices can both be
factors in crime by understanding the need for responsibility on the part of
the offender and an opportunity for their rehabilitation. A Catholic approach
leads us to encourage models of restorative justice that seek to address crime
in terms of the harm done to victims and communities, not simply as a
violation of law.
The Old Testament provides us with a rich tradition that demonstrates both
God's justice and mercy. The Lord offered to his people Ten Commandments, very
basic rules for living from which the Israelites formed their own laws in a
covenant relationship with God. Punishment was required, reparations were
demanded, and relationships were restored. But the Lord never abandoned his
people despite their sins. And in times of trouble, victims relied on God's
love and mercy, and then on each other to find comfort and support (Is
57:18-21; Ps 94:19).
Just as God never abandons us, so too we must be in covenant with one another.
We are all sinners, and our response to sin and failure should not be
abandonment and despair, but rather justice, contrition, reparation, and
return or reintegration of all into the community.
The New Testament
builds on this tradition and extends it. Jesus demonstrated his disappointment
with those who oppressed others (Mt 23) and those who defiled sacred spaces (Jn
2). At the same time, he rejected punishment for its own sake, noting that we
are all sinners (Jn 8). Jesus also rejected revenge and retaliation and was
ever hopeful that offenders would transform their lives and turn to be
embraced by God's love.
Jesus, who himself was a prisoner, calls us to visit the imprisoned and to
take care of the sick (including victims of crime), the homeless, and the
hungry (Mt 25). His mission began with proclaiming good news to the poor and
release to captives (Lk 4). In our day, we are called to find Christ in young
children at risk, troubled youth, prisoners in our jails and on death row, and
crime victims experiencing pain and loss.
The story of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10), who did all he could to help a victim
of crime, a stranger, is a model for us today. We must be willing to stop and
help victims of crime recover from their physical and emotional wounds.
The parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15) shows God's love for us and models how
we should love one another. In spite of his younger son's reckless life and
squandering of his inheritance, the father celebrates his return home,
recognizing that his son has shown contrition and has changed his life. The
lost who have been found are to be welcomed and celebrated, not resented and
rejected. Pope John Paul II said
What Christ is looking for is trusting acceptance, an attitude which
opens the mind to generous decisions aimed at rectifying the evil done and
fostering what is good. Sometimes this involves a long journey, but always a
stimulating one, for it is a journey not made alone, but in the company of
Christ himself and with his support. . . . He never tires of encouraging
each person along the path to salvation.29
Sacramental and Historical Heritage
Our sacramental life can help us make sense of our paradoxical approach to
crime and punishment. The sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist are real
encounters with the Saving Lord and central Catholic signs of true justice and
mercy. Sinners are encouraged to take responsibility and make amends for their
sins; yet we never give up hope that they can be forgiven and rejoin the
The four traditional elements of the sacrament of Penance have much to teach
us about taking responsibility, making amends, and reintegrating into
- 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
- 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. 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. We believe that
it is God who ultimately judges a person's motivation, intention, and the
forces that shaped that person's actions.
Catholic Social Teaching
Catholic social teaching offers directions as well as measures for our
response to crime and criminal justice.
Human Life and Dignity: The fundamental starting point for all of
Catholic social teaching is the defense of human life and dignity: every human
person is created in the image and likeness of God and has an inviolable
dignity, value, and worth, regardless of race, gender, class, or other human
characteristics. Therefore, both the most wounded victim and the most callous
criminal retain their humanity. All are created in the image of God and
possess a dignity, value, and worth that must be recognized, promoted,
safeguarded, and defended. For this reason, any system of penal justice must
provide those necessities that enable inmates to live in dignity: food,
clothing, shelter, personal safety, timely medical care, education, and
meaningful work adequate to the conditions of human dignity.30
Human dignity is not something we earn by our good behavior; it is something
we have as children of God. We believe that because we are all created by God,
"none of us is the sum total of the worst act we have ever committed. . . . As
a people of faith, we believe that grace can transform even the most hardened
and cruel human beings."31
Victims, too, must have the help of the faith community in recovering their
dignity. To be excluded from the proceedings against their offenders, to be
ignored by friends and family, or to be neglected by the community of faith
because their deep pain is unsettling only serves to further isolate victims
and denies their dignity. All of us are called to stand with victims in their
hurt and in their search for healing and genuine justice. This includes, of
course, the children of the incarcerated, who themselves are seriously harmed
by their parents' misdeeds.
Human Rights and Responsibilities: Our tradition insists that every
person has both rights and responsibilities. We have the right to life and to
those things that make life human: faith and family, food and shelter, housing
and health care, education and safety. We also have responsibilities to
ourselves, to our families, and to the broader community.
Crime and corrections
are at the intersection of rights and responsibilities. Those who commit
crimes violate the rights of others and disregard their responsibilities. But
the test for the rest of us is whether we will exercise our responsibility to
hold the offender accountable without violating his or her basic rights. Even
offenders should be treated with respect for their rights.
Family, Community, and Participation: We believe the human person is
social. Our dignity, rights, and responsibilities are lived out in
relationship with others, and primary among these is the family. The
disintegration of family life and community has been a major contributor to
crime. Supporting and rebuilding family ties should be central to efforts to
prevent and respond to crime. Placing prisons in remote areas diminishes
contacts with close relatives and undermines the family connections that could
aid in restoration, especially for young offenders.
Likewise, maintaining community and family connections can help offenders
understand the harm they've done and prepare them for reintegration into
society. Isolation may be necessary in some rare cases; but while cutting off
family contact can make incarceration easier for those in charge, it can make
reintegration harder for those in custody.
The principle of participation is especially important for victims of crime.
Sometimes victims are "used" by the criminal justice system or political
interests. As the prosecution builds a case, the victim's hurt and loss can be
seen as a tool to obtain convictions and tough sentences. But the victim's
need to be heard and to be healed are not really addressed.
The Common Good: The social dimension of our teaching leads us to the
common good and its relationship to punishment. According to the Catechism
of the Catholic Church, punishment by civil authorities for criminal
activity should serve three principal purposes: (1) the preservation and
protection of the common good of society, (2) the restoration of public order,
and (3) the restoration or conversion of the offender.32
The concept of "redress," or repair of the harm done to the victims and to
society by the criminal activity, is also important to restoring the common
good. This often neglected dimension of punishment allows victims to move from
a place of pain and anger to one of healing and resolution. In our tradition,
restoring the balance of rights through restitution is an important element of
The Option for the Poor and Vulnerable: This principle of Catholic
social teaching recognizes that every public policy must be assessed by how it
will affect the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. Sometimes
people who lack adequate resources from early in life (i.e.,
children—especially those who have been physically, sexually, or emotionally
abused—the mentally ill, and people who have suffered discrimination) turn to
lives of crime in desperation or out of anger or confusion. Unaddressed
needs—including proper nutrition, shelter, health care, and protection from
abuse and neglect—can be steppingstones on a path towards crime. Our role as
Church is to continually work to address these needs through pastoral care,
charity, and advocacy.
Subsidiarity and Solidarity: These two related principles recognize
that human dignity and human rights are fostered in community. Subsidiarity
calls for problem-solving initially at the community level: family,
neighborhood, city, and state. It is only when problems become too large or
the common good is clearly threatened that larger institutions are required to
help. This principle encourages communities to be more involved. Criminal
activity is largely a local issue and, to the extent possible, should have
local solutions. Neighborhood-watch groups, community-oriented policing,
school liaison officers, neighborhood treatment centers, and local support for
ex-offenders all can be part of confronting crime and fear of crime in local
Solidarity recognizes that "we are all really responsible for all."33
Not only are we responsible for the safety and well-being of our family and
our next-door neighbor, but Christian solidarity demands that we work for
justice beyond our boundaries. Christians are asked to see Jesus in the face
of everyone, including both victims and offenders. Through the lens of
solidarity, those who commit crimes and are hurt by crime are not issues or
problems; they are sisters and brothers, members of one human family.
Solidarity calls us to insist on responsibility and seek alternatives that do
not simply punish, but rehabilitate, heal, and restore.
In light of this moral framework, we seek approaches that understand crime
as a threat to community, not just a violation of law; that demand new efforts
to rebuild lives, not just build more prisons; and that demonstrate a
commitment to re-weave a broader social fabric of respect for life, civility,
responsibility, and reconciliation. New approaches should be built on the
- Protecting society from those who threaten life, inflict harm, take
property, and destroy the bonds of community.
The protection of society and its members from violence and crime is an
essential moral value. Crime, especially violent crime, not only endangers
individuals, but robs communities of a sense of well-being and security, and
of the ability to protect their members. All people should be able to live
in safety. Families must be able to raise their children without fear.
Removing dangerous people from society is essential to ensure public safety.
And the threat of incarceration does, in fact, deter some crime (e.g.,
tougher sanctions for drunk drivers along with a public education campaign
seem to have dramatically reduced the numbers of intoxicated drivers on our
roadways34). However, punishment for its own sake is not a
Christian response to crime. Punishment must have a purpose. It must be
coupled with treatment and, when possible, restitution.
- Rejecting simplistic solutions such as "three strikes and you're out"
and rigid mandatory sentencing.
The causes of crime are complex and efforts to fight crime are complicated.
One-size-fits-all solutions are often inadequate. Studies and experience
show that the combination of accountability and flexibility works best with
those who are trying to change their lives. To the extent possible, we
should support community-based solutions, especially for non-violent
offenders, because a greater emphasis is placed on treatment and restoration
for the criminal, and restitution and healing for the victim. We must renew
our efforts to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. Therefore, we do
not support mandatory sentencing that replaces judges' assessments with
We bishops cannot support policies that treat young offenders as though they
are adults. The actions of the most violent youth leave us shocked and
frightened and therefore they should be removed from society until they are
no longer dangerous. But society must never respond to children who have
committed crimes as though they are somehow equal to adults—fully formed in
conscience and fully aware of their actions. Placing children in adult jails
is a sign of failure, not a solution. In many instances, such terrible
behavior points to our own negligence in raising children with a respect for
life, providing a nurturing and loving environment, or addressing serious
mental or emotional illnesses.
- Promoting serious efforts toward crime prevention and poverty
Socio-economic factors such as extreme poverty, discrimination, and racism
are serious contributors to crime. Sadly, racism often shapes American
attitudes and policies toward crime and criminal justice. We see it in who
is jobless and who is poor, who is a victim of crime and who is in prison,
who lacks adequate counsel and who is on death row. We cannot ignore the
fact that one-fifth of our preschoolers are growing up in poverty and far
too many go to bed hungry. Any comprehensive approach to criminal justice
must address these factors, but it should also consider the positive impact
of strong, intact families. Parents have a critical and irreplaceable role
as primary guardians and guides of their children. One only has to observe
how gangs often provide young people with a sense of belonging and hope when
grinding poverty and family disintegration have been their only experience.
And while it is true that many poor children who are products of
dysfunctional families never commit crimes, poverty and family
disintegration are significant risk factors for criminal activity. Finally,
quality education must be available for all children to prepare them for
gainful employment, further education, and responsible citizenship. The
failure of our education system in many communities contributes to crime.
Fighting poverty, educating children, and supporting families are essential
- Challenging the culture of violence and encouraging a culture of
All of us must do more to end violence in the home and to find ways to help
victims break out of the pattern of abuse.35 As bishops, we
support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them
safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or
anyone other than the owner), and we reiterate our call for sensible
regulation of handguns.36
Likewise, we cannot ignore the underlying cultural values that help to
create a violent environment: a denial of right and wrong, education that
ignores fundamental values, an abandonment of personal responsibility, an
excessive and selfish focus on our individual desires, a diminishing sense
of obligation to our children and neighbors, and a misplaced emphasis on
acquiring wealth and possessions. And, in particular, the media must be
challenged to stop glorifying violence and exploiting sexuality.37
Media images and information can communicate fear and a distorted perception
of crime. We encourage the media to present a more balanced picture, which
does not minimize the human dignity of the victim or that of the offender.38
In short, we often fail to value life and cherish human beings above our
desires for possessions, power, and pleasure.39
We join Pope John Paul II in renewing our strong and principled opposition
to the death penalty. We oppose capital punishment not just for what it does
to those guilty of horrible crimes, but for how it affects society;
moreover, we have alternative means today to protect society from violent
people. As we said in our Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty,
Increasing reliance on the death penalty diminishes us and is a sign of
growing disrespect for human life. We cannot overcome crime by simply
executing criminals, nor can we restore the lives of the innocent by
ending the lives of those convicted of their murders. The death penalty
offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life.40
- Offering victims the opportunity to participate more fully in the
criminal justice process.
Victims and their families must have a more central place in a reformed
criminal justice system. Besides the physical wounds some victims suffer,
all victims experience emotional scars that may never fully heal. And since
a majority of offenders are not apprehended for their crimes, these victims
do not even have the satisfaction of knowing that the offender has been held
accountable. This lack of closure can increase victims' fears and make
healing more difficult.
This vital concern for victims can be misused. Some tactics can fuel hatred,
not healing: for example, maximizing punishment for its own sake and
advancing punitive policies that contradict the values we hold. But such
abuses should not be allowed to turn us away from a genuine response to
victims and to their legitimate and necessary participation in the criminal
justice system. Victims of crime have the right to be kept informed
throughout the criminal justice process. They should be able to share their
pain and the impact of the crime on their lives after conviction has taken
place and in appropriate ways during the sentencing process. If they wish,
they should be able to confront the offender and ask for reparation for
their losses. In this regard, we offer general support for legislation to
respond to the needs and the rights of victims, and we urge every state to
strengthen victims' advocacy programs.
- Encouraging innovative programs of restorative justice that provide
the opportunity for mediation between victims and offenders and offer
restitution for crimes committed.
An increasingly widespread and positive development in many communities is
often referred to as restorative justice. Restorative justice focuses first
on the victim and the community harmed by the crime, rather than on the
dominant state-against-the-perpetrator model. This shift in focus affirms
the hurt and loss of the victim, as well as the harm and fear of the
community, and insists that offenders come to grips with the consequences of
their actions. These approaches are not "soft on crime" because they
specifically call the offender to face victims and the communities. This
experience offers victims a much greater sense of peace and accountability.
Offenders who are willing to face the human consequences of their actions
are more ready to accept responsibility, make reparations, and rebuild their
Restorative justice also reflects our values and tradition. Our faith calls
us to hold people accountable, to forgive, and to heal. Focusing primarily
on the legal infraction without a recognition of the human damage does not
advance our values.
One possible component of a restorative justice approach is victim-offender
mediation. With the help of a skilled facilitator, these programs offer
victims or their families the opportunity to share the harm done to their
lives and property, and provide a place for the offender to face the victim,
admit responsibility, acknowledge harm, and agree to restitution. However,
we recognize that victim-offender mediation programs should be a voluntary
element of the criminal justice system. Victims should never be required to
take part in mediation programs. Sometimes their pain and anger are too deep
to attempt such a process.
When victims cannot confront offenders—for example, because it may be too
painful or the offender has not been apprehended—they can choose to be part
of an "impact panel." Led by professional counselors, these panels bring
together victims and offenders who have been involved in similar crimes and
can assist the victim's healing, the community's understanding of the crime,
and the offender's sense of responsibility.
- Insisting that punishment has a constructive and rehabilitative
Our criminal justice system should punish offenders and, when necessary,
imprison them to protect society. Their incarceration, however, should be
about more than punishment. Since nearly all inmates will return to society,
prisons must be places where offenders are challenged, encouraged, and
rewarded for efforts to change their behaviors and attitudes, and where they
learn the skills needed for employment and life in community. We call upon
government to redirect the vast amount of public resources away from
building more and more prisons and toward better and more effective programs
aimed at crime prevention, rehabilitation, education efforts, substance
abuse treatment, and programs of probation, parole, and reintegration.
Renewed emphasis should be placed on parole and probation systems as
alternatives to incarceration, especially for non-violent offenders. Freeing
up prison construction money to bolster these systems should be a top
priority. Abandoning the parole system, as some states have done, combined
with the absence of a clear commitment to rehabilitation programs within
prisons, turns prisons into warehouses where inmates grow old, without hope,
their lives wasted.
In addition, the current trend towards locating prisons in remote areas, far
away from communities where most crimes are committed, creates tremendous
hardships on families of inmates. This problem is particularly acute for
inmates convicted of federal offenses and for state prisoners serving their
sentences out of state. Families and children may have to travel long
distances, often at significant expense, to see their loved ones. Distance
from home is also a problem for those in the religious community who seek to
provide much-needed pastoral care. Being away from support systems is
especially hard on juvenile offenders, who need family and community
support. Public safety is not served by locating prisons in remote
communities—regular inmate contact with family and friends reduces the
likelihood that upon release they will return to a life of crime.
Not all offenders
are open to treatment, but all deserve to be challenged and encouraged to
turn their lives around. Programs in jails and prisons that offer offenders
education, life skills, religious expression, and recovery from substance
abuse greatly reduce recidivism, benefit society, and help the offenders
when they reintegrate into the community. These programs need to be made
available at correctional institutions regardless of the level of security
and be offered, to the extent possible, in the language of prisoners. More
effective prevention and treatment programs should also be available in our
We bishops question whether private, for-profit corporations can effectively
run prisons. The profit motive may lead to reduced efforts to change
behaviors, treat substance abuse, and offer skills necessary for
reintegration into the community. Regardless of who runs prisons, we oppose
the increasing use of isolation units, especially in the absence of due
process, and the monitoring and professional assessment of the effects of
such confinement on the mental health of inmates.
Finally, we must welcome ex-offenders back into society as full
participating members, to the extent feasible, and support their right to
- Encouraging Spiritual Healing and Renewal for those who commit crime.
Prison officials should encourage inmates to seek spiritual formation and to
participate in worship. Attempts to limit prisoners' expression of their
religious beliefs are not only counterproductive to rehabilitation efforts,
but also unconstitutional. As pastors, we will continue to press for
expanded access to prisoners through our chaplaincy programs, including by
dedicated volunteers. We oppose limitations on the authentic religious
expression of prisoners and roadblocks that inhibit prison ministry. The
denial of and onerous restrictions on religious presence in prisons are a
violation of religious liberty. Every indication is that genuine religious
participation and formation is a road to renewal and rehabilitation for
those who have committed crimes. This includes contact with trained parish
volunteers who will help nourish the faith life of inmates and ex-offenders.
- Making a serious commitment to confront the pervasive role of
addiction and mental illness in crime.
Far too many people are in prison primarily because of addiction. Locking up
addicts without proper treatment and then returning them to the streets
perpetuates a cycle of behavior that benefits neither the offender nor
Persons suffering from chemical dependency should have access to the
treatment that could free them and their families from the slavery of
addiction, and free the rest of us from the crimes they commit to support
this addiction. This effort will require adequate federal, state, and local
resources for prevention and treatment for substance abusers. Not providing
these resources now will cost far more in the long run. Substance abusers
should not have to be behind bars in order to receive treatment for their
We need to address the underlying problems that in turn attract drug users
into an illegal economy—lack of employment, poverty, inadequate education,
family disintegration, lack of purpose and meaning, poor housing, and
powerlessness and greed. The sale and use of drugs--whether to make money or
to seek an escape--are unacceptable.
At least one third of inmates are jailed for drug-related crimes. Many of
them would likely benefit from alternatives to incarceration. "Drug
courts"—where substance abusers are diverted from the traditional criminal
courts and gain access to serious treatment programs—is one innovation that
seems to offer great promise and should be encouraged.
Likewise, crimes are sometimes committed by individuals suffering from
serious mental illness. While government has an obligation to protect the
community from those who become aggressive or violent because of mental
illness, it also has a responsibility to see that the offender receives the
proper treatment for his or her illness. Far too often mental illness goes
undiagnosed, and many in our prison system would do better in other settings
more equipped to handle their particular needs.
- Treating immigrants justly.
As a country, we must welcome newcomers and see them as adding to the
richness of our cultural fabric. We acknowledge that the law treats
immigrants and citizens differently, but no one should be denied the right
to fair judicial proceedings. We urge the federal government to restore
basic due process to immigrants (including a repeal of mandatory detention)
and allow those seeking asylum a fair hearing. Migrants who cannot be
deported because their country of origin will not accept them should not be
imprisoned indefinitely. Legal immigrants who have served sentences for
their crimes should not be re-penalized and deported, often leaving family
members behind. Many of these immigrants have become valuable members of
their communities. Likewise, we oppose onerous restrictions on religious
expression and pastoral care of detained immigrants and asylum seekers under
Immigration Naturalization Service (INS) jurisdiction and urge the INS to
guarantee access to qualified ministerial personnel.
- Placing crime in a community context and building on promising
alternatives that empower neighborhoods and towns to restore a sense of
"Community" is not only a place to live; the word also describes the web of
relationships and resources that brings us together and helps us cope with
our everyday challenges. Fear of crime and violence tears at this web. Some
residents of troubled neighborhoods are faced with another kind of
community, that of street gangs. These residents feel powerless to take on
tough kids in gangs and have little hope that the situation will ever
But there are communities where committed individuals are willing to take
risks and bring people together to confront gangs and violence. Often
organized by churches—and funded by our Catholic Campaign for Human
Development—these community groups partner with local police to identify
drug markets, develop specific strategies to deal with current and potential
crime problems, and target at-risk youth for early intervention. Bringing
together many elements of the community, they can devise strategies to clean
up streets and take back their neighborhoods.
One successful community strategy is Boston's Ten Point Coalition, which is
credited with reducing juvenile gun deaths, over a several-year period, from
epidemic proportions to near zero. This strategy requires a close
relationship among religious leaders and law enforcement and court
officials, as well as a pervasive presence of people of faith on the streets
offering outreach, opportunities for education, and supervised recreation to
at-risk youth. The strategy also sends a clear signal that criminal activity
in the community will not be tolerated. Similar strategies that model the
Boston coalition are now emerging in other cities.
Another community-based strategy to prevent crime is the "broken-window"
model. Proponents contend that tolerance of lesser crimes (such as breaking
windows of cars and factories) undermines public order and leads to more
serious crimes. Stopping crime at the broken-windows stage demonstrates that
a low-cost, high-visibility effort can be effective in preventing crime.
Community policing and neighborhood-watch groups have proven to be effective
models of crime control and community building, empowering local leaders to
solve their own problems. These efforts reflect the Catholic social teaching
principles of solidarity, subsidiarity, and the search for the common good.
The challenge of curbing crime and reshaping the criminal justice system is
not just a matter of public policy, but is also a test of Catholic commitment.
In the face of so much violence and crime, our faith calls the Church to
responsibility and action. A wide variety of Catholic communities have
responded with impressive programs of service and advocacy. In many dioceses,
Catholic Charities is reaching out to victims, those in prison and their
families, ex-offenders, and others touched by crime and the criminal justice
system through counseling, employment and treatment programs, as well as early
intervention efforts directed towards families and individuals at risk. Yet
more is needed. Our community of faith is called to
- Teach right from wrong, respect for life and the law, forgiveness and
Our beliefs about the sanctity of human life and dignity must be at the
center of our approach to these issues. We respect the humanity and promote
the human dignity of both victims and offenders. We believe society must
protect its citizens from violence and crime and hold accountable those who
break the law. These same principles lead us to advocate for rehabilitation
and treatment for offenders, for, like victims, their lives reflect that
same dignity. Both victims and perpetrators of crime are children of God.
Even with new visions, ideas, and strategies, we bishops have modest
expectations about how well they will work without a moral revolution in our
society. Policies and programs, while necessary, cannot substitute for a
renewed emphasis on the traditional values of family and community, respect
and responsibility, mercy and justice, and teaching right from wrong. God's
wisdom, love, and commandments can show us the way to live together, respect
ourselves and others, heal victims and offenders, and renew communities.
"Thou shalt not kill" and "Thou shalt not steal" are still necessary
guidelines for a civil society and imperatives for the common good. Our
Church teaches these values every day in pulpits and parishes, in schools
and adult education programs, and through advocacy and witness in the public
square. Catholic institutions that offer programs for youth and young adult
ministry—including Catholic schools, Catholic Charities, and St. Vincent De
Paul agencies—are bulwarks against crime, by providing formation for young
people, enrichment and training for parents, counseling and alternatives for
troubled children and families, and rehabilitative services for former
- Stand with victims and their families.
Victims of crime and their families often turn to their local parishes for
compassion and support. Pastors and parish ministers must be prepared to
respond quickly and effectively. In the past, failure to do so has resulted
in alienation from the Church by crime victims and/or members of the
families of crime victims. Our pastoral presence to victims must be
compassionate and constant, which includes developing victim ministry
programs. Such programs will teach ministers to acknowledge the emotional
strain felt by victims, to understand that the search for wholeness can take
a very long time, and to encourage victims to redirect their anger from
vengeance to true justice and real healing.
- Reach out to offenders and their families, advocate for more
treatment, and provide for the pastoral needs of all involved.
The families of offenders are also in need of our pastoral presence. Seeing
a loved one fail to live up to family ideals, community values, and the
requirements of the law causes intense pain and loss. The Gospel calls us as
people of faith to minister to the families of those imprisoned and
especially to the children who lose a parent to incarceration.
We know that faith has a transforming effect on all our lives. Therefore,
rehabilitation and restoration must include the spiritual dimension of
healing and hope. The Church must stand-ready to help offenders discover the
good news of the Gospel and how it can transform their lives. There should
be no prisons, jails, or detention centers that do not have a regular and
ongoing Catholic ministry and presence. We must ensure that the incarcerated
have access to these sacraments. We especially need to commit more of our
church resources to support and prepare chaplains, volunteers, and others
who try to make the system more just and humane. We are grateful for those
who bring the Gospel alive in their ministry to those touched by crime and
to those in prison. The Church must also stand ready to help the families of
inmates, especially the young children left behind.
One way to help reintegrate offenders into the community is developing
parish mentoring programs that begin to help offenders prior to their
release and assist them in the difficult transition back to the community.
These programs can reduce recidivism and challenge faith communities to live
out the Gospel values of forgiveness, reconciliation, and responsibility for
all members of the Body of Christ. Mentoring programs provide an environment
of support, love, and concrete assistance for ex-offenders while also
educating parishioners about Catholic teaching and restorative justice.
Family group counseling programs have been especially effective in
redirecting youth who find themselves alienated from their families. Skilled
counselors can help families identify their negative patterns in relating to
one another and can offer alternate ways of communicating and building
- Build community.
Every parish exists within a community. When crime occurs, the whole
community feels less safe and secure. Parishes are called to help rebuild
their communities. Partnerships among churches, law enforcement, businesses,
and neighborhood-watch groups, as well as social service, substance abuse,
and mental health agencies, can help address crime in the neighborhood. The
parish community can also be instrumental in developing programs for prison
and victim ministries. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development supports
many creative efforts to prevent crime and rebuild community.
- Advocate policies that help reduce violence, protect the innocent,
involve the victims, and offer real alternatives to crime.
As people of faith and as citizens, we are called to become involved in
civil society and to advocate for policies that reflect our values. Current
approaches to crime, victims, and violence often fall short of the values of
our faith. We should resist policies that simply call for more prisons,
harsher sentences, and increased reliance on the death penalty. Rather, we
should promote policies that put more resources into restoration, education,
and substance-abuse treatment programs. We must advocate on behalf of those
most vulnerable to crime (the young and the elderly), ensure community
safety, and attack the leading contributors to crime, which include the
breakdown of family life, poverty, the proliferation of handguns, drug and
alcohol addiction, and the pervasive culture of violence. We should also
encourage programs of restorative justice that focus on community healing
and personal accountability.
- Organize diocesan and state consultations.
In this statement, we have tried to reflect what was learned through our
consultations with those involved in the criminal justice system. More
difficult to express were their many eloquent personal experiences of pain
and joy, of hope and disappointment, of success and failure. Their
experiences and challenges have moved us deeply and have helped us focus on
the human dimensions of this enormously complex set of problems. Some of
their stories have been included as a part of these reflections.
We encourage diocesan leaders to convene similar processes of engagement and
dialogue with those involved in the system: crime victims, former inmates,
jail chaplains, judges, police officers, community leaders, prosecutors,
families of victims and offenders, and others. Ask them to share their
faith, stories, and hopes and fears. Listening can lead to action. This kind
of dialogue can encourage parishes to minister to victims and to inmates, to
mentor troubled youth, and to help former prisoners rejoin society.
At the state level, we urge similar convenings held under the auspices of
state Catholic conferences. These key Catholic public policy organizations
can share their message with influential lawmakers and help shape new
- Work for new approaches.
No statement can substitute for the values and voices of Catholics working
for reform. We hope these reflections will encourage those who are already
working for reform both inside and outside the system. We also hope many
others will join with them in efforts to prevent crime, reach out to
victims, offer ministry and rehabilitation in our prisons, help to
re-integrate ex-offenders, and advocate for new approaches.
Our national bishops' conference will seek to share the message of this
statement. Through our Catholic Campaign for Human Development and other
programs, we will offer ideas and options, directions and resources, for
those willing to take up this challenge.
We Catholic bishops hope that these modest reflections will stimulate a
renewed dialogue among Catholics and other people of good will on issues and
actions regarding crime and criminal justice. We encourage and support those
called by our community to minister to prisoners and victims and all other
people who work directly in the criminal justice system. We suggest that they
use these reflections to assess how the system can become less retributive and
more restorative. We pray that these words offer some comfort to victims and
communities threatened by crime, and challenge all Catholics to become
involved in restoring communities to wholeness.
We are guided by the paradoxical Catholic teaching on crime and punishment: We
will not tolerate the crime and violence that threatens 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. Working together, we believe our
faith calls us to protect public safety, promote the common good, and restore
community. We believe a Catholic ethic of responsibility, rehabilitation, and
restoration can become the foundation for the necessary reform of our broken
criminal justice system.
|Renewing Our Call to End the Death Penalty
In these reflections, we bishops have focused on how our
faith and teaching can offer a distinctive Catholic perspective on crime
and punishment, responsibility and rehabilitation. These reflections do
not focus on the death penalty as our primary concern. In this context,
however, we wish to renew our call for an end to capital punishment.
The administration of the death penalty is often seen as a major sign of
some of the failings within the American criminal justice system. Capital
punishment is cruel, unnecessary, and arbitrary; it often has racial
overtones;1 and it fails to live up to our deep conviction that
all human life is sacred: "Our witness to respect for life shines most
brightly when we demand respect for each and every human life, including
the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others. The antidote
to violence is love, not more violence."2
In this call we add our voices to the prophetic witness of Pope John Paul
II—who, when he last came to our nation, appealed for an end to capital
The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are
unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the
Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing
recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away,
even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has
the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals
the chance to reform (cf. Evangelium Vitae, no. 27). I renew the
appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the
death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.
We join our appeal to the position of the universal Church. The
promulgated text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares,
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect
people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such
means, as these are more in conformity with the dignity of the human
person. (no. 2267)
And we join with those who are working to end the death penalty—in
their witness at prisons as people are executed, in state capitals across
our land, in courtrooms and prisons around the nation, and in Congress,
where efforts to abolish or limit the death penalty are being debated. We
support calls for a moratorium on executions and welcome the courage of
leaders who have implemented or are working to address the clear failings
of the death penalty.
We know this is not an easy matter. Catholic teaching has developed over
time and there have been diverse views on the application of these
principles. However, as we begin this new millennium, Pope John Paul II,
the U.S. Catholic bishops, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church3
together express the strong conviction that capital punishment should no
longer be used since there are better ways to protect society, and the
death penalty diminishes respect for human life.
We are encouraged by small but growing signs that support for the death
penalty is eroding and that capital punishment is being reconsidered.
People are asking if we are really safer in states where executions are so
regular that they hardly rate news coverage. People are asking whether we
can be sure that those who are executed are truly guilty, given the
evidence of wrongful convictions and poor representation in death penalty
cases. We welcome legislation to address these issues as a way to focus on
the unfairness of the death penalty. But most of all, we are asking
whether we can teach that killing is wrong by killing those who have been
convicted of killing others. It is time to abandon the death penalty—not
just because of what it does to those who are executed, but because of how
it diminishes all of us.
We cannot overcome what Pope John Paul II called a "culture of death," we
cannot reverse what we have called a "culture of violence," and we cannot
build a "culture of life" by state-sanctioned killing. As we said before
and renew today:
We cannot overcome crime by simply executing criminals, nor can we
restore the lives of the innocent by ending the lives of those convicted
of their murders. The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we
can defend life by taking life.4
We ask all Catholics—pastors, catechists, educators, and
parishioners—to join us in rethinking this difficult issue and committing
ourselves to pursuing justice without vengeance. With our Holy Father, we
seek to build a society so committed to human life that it will not
sanction the killing of any human person.
- Though holding only one-half of 1 percent of death row inmates, the
federal government recently concluded a study of its nineteen people on
death row. The conclusion is that despite serious efforts to ensure
fairness in seeking the death penalty for defendants convicted of
federally eligible crimes, fourteen of the inmates are African American,
five are Caucasian, and one is Hispanic (U.S. Department of Justice,
Survey of the Federal Death Penalty System: 1988-2000 [Washington,
- U.S. Catholic Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to
American Catholics (Washington, D.C., 1998), 15.
- For the complete text on the treatment of the death penalty, see
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd. ed. (Washington, D.C.: United
States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000), nos. 2263-2267, see also,
- Administrative Board, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,
A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty (Washington, D.C.:
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1999), 3.
The Catholic community has a tremendous history and capacity to help shape
the issues of crime and criminal justice in the United States. 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
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. Catholics can
- Promote a culture of life, alternatives to abortion by supporting
adoption, foster care, and homes for unwed mothers
- Read the U.S. Catholic Bishops statement, Renewing the Mind of the
Media: A Statement on Overcoming Exploitation of Sex and Violence in
Communications, which offers ways for Catholics to help curtail the use
of violent and sexual content on radio and television and in print media and
- Support local programs that offer young people character-building
opportunities and divert their energy to positive endeavors: athletics,
Scouting, Church-sponsored after-school and evening social programs, and
tutoring and literacy programs.
- Encourage schools, churches, and neighborhood centers to teach conflict
resolution, especially to children, as a way to reduce tension and violence.
- Work to ensure that jobs, affordable housing, and accessibility to
health services are available in your community.
- Oppose attempts to impose or expand the death penalty in your state. In
states that sanction the death penalty, join organizations that work to
curtail its use (e.g., prohibit the execution of teenagers or the mentally
ill) and those that call for its abolition.
- Invite parish discussions for collaborative responses to the death
penalty—such as public prayer vigils, tolling of church bells, penitential
practices—when an execution is scheduled.
Stand With Victims and Their Families
The Church's witness to victims and their families must be more focused and
comprehensive. We must see victims as people with many needs, not just those
satisfied by the criminal justice system. The government's role is to ensure
that the offender is punished, that reparations are made and that the
community feels safe, but victims have spiritual, physical and emotional needs
that are often best met by family, friends, neighbors and the community of
faith. The Church should pursue policies and programs that respond to all the
needs of victims of crime, just as we do to victims of natural disasters. To
support victims, Catholics can
- Learn more about the types of programs that are available for victims at
the local level. For example, many states offer reparations for victims of
violence, and some local churches have developed effective victim ministry
programs. Catholic parishes can work to discover the gaps in meeting
victims' needs and explore ways to fill those gaps.
- Support local programs that work to train people for victim ministry.
Where these programs don't exist, join with other churches, civic, and
community groups to form networks of people ready to respond to the
material, emotional, and spiritual needs of victims.
- Promote victim ministry programs at the parish level with the goal of
having a consistent and comprehensive presence to those affected by crime.
Parishioners can bring meals, secure broken windows and doors, and offer
emotional support to victims of break-ins or violent encounters. Pastoral
ministers should become familiar with services available through Catholic
Charities and other counseling agencies and victims' programs and help
connect victims with these services.
Reach Out to Offenders and Their Families
Just as victims of crime have a variety of needs, so do offenders and their
families, especially the children of offenders. The Church should not only
have a strong presence in prisons and jails—where we Catholics work to meet
the spiritual and emotional needs of inmates—but should make special efforts
to assist children left without the support of their incarcerated parent.
- Promote prison ministry programs at the diocesan and parish levels. We
affirm the dedicated deacons and priests who carry forward this mission. We
welcome lay ministers—both volunteer and professional—who are indispensable
to this ministry.
- Reach out to the families of inmates. Parishes can mentor families
caught up in the cycle of crime, assist with transportation for prison
visitations, offer material assistance when income is lost because of the
incarceration, and provide counseling (often through Catholic Charities
- Promote prisoner re-entry programs. Often the most difficult time for a
former inmate is trying to reintegrate into his or her community. Some
parishes have made available church property for transition houses while
others assist in providing the spiritual, material, and emotional assistance
that the probation and parole system rarely provides.
Catholics believe that life in community enables all people to be fully human.
We value strong, intact families and healthy neighborhoods. Crime, especially
violent crime, often destroys families and communities and can make everyone
feel less safe or secure. Catholics are encouraged to promote all of those
things that support family life and lift up the community. Catholics can
- Promote the variety of efforts in our neighborhoods that encourage
active participation in the life of the community. Neighborhood watch
groups, community-oriented policing, and partnerships between law
enforcement and the local faith community are all part of the web of
relationships that create safe and secure communities.
- Promote the work of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in your
local diocese by giving generously to the annual collection. Grants from the
collection are given back to communities to support organizing projects
which bring people together to work on community needs, including crime and
- Support programs in your community that engage youth and build their
self-esteem. Become a Big Brother or Big Sister, mentor children at risk,
and support school or community center programs that offer diversions for
children between the hours of 3:00 and 8:00 p.m. when parental supervision
is often inadequate.
- Discover new ways of dealing with offenders. Models such as Boston's
"Ten-Point Coalition" can be replicated in many communities. These programs
encourage partnerships between local churches and police and divert troubled
teens from a life of crime to becoming productive citizens.
Advocate Policies That Offer Real
Alternatives to Crime
Charitable works go a long way toward solving some of the problems of crime
and victimization. Yet efforts to change policies and enhance programs that
affect the treatment of victims and offenders, and those that help restore
communities affected by crime are also essential to a new approach to crime
and criminal justice. We Catholics must bring our beliefs and values to the
attention of those in positions to influence policy.
State Catholic conferences, diocesan offices (e.g., pro-life, education, and
social concerns), and parish legislative advocacy networks can help individual
Catholics to support public policies that reflect our values. Catholics can
- Learn about federal, state, and local policies that affect how criminal
justice is administered.
- Join diocesan legislative networks to ensure that the Catholic voice is
heard on crime and criminal justice issues. If your diocese does not have a
legislative network, call your state Catholic conference or visit the
website for the U.S. bishops' Office of Domestic Policy at
actions you can take at the national level.
- Talk to prosecutors, judges, chiefs of police, and others involved in
the criminal justice system and seek their views on how the system can
better reflect our values and priorities.
Organize Diocesan Consultations
A primary role for the Church is to gather people of different viewpoints and
help them to reach common ground. Out of this dialogue can come greater
appreciation for diverse perspectives, credibility for the Church's
involvement in the issues, and ultimately a change of heart and mind by those
who can impact the criminal justice system so that it more fully reflects
- We bishops encourage dioceses to invite jail and prison chaplains,
victims of crime, corrections officers, judges, wardens, former inmates,
police, parole and probation officers, substance abuse and family
counselors, community leaders and others to listening sessions. The purpose
of these sessions would be to gain a better appreciation of all the parties
affected by crime and involved in the criminal justice system, to seek
common ground on local approaches to crime, to collaborate more easily in
areas of mutual concern, and to build community among all these people of
goodwill who are trying to make society safer and life more complete.
- State Catholic conferences may convene policy makers, ministers, and
other interested parties at the state level and engage in a similar process
of listening, learning, and planning in an effort to make the criminal
justice system more reflective of justice and mercy, responsibility and
rehabilitation, restoration and wholeness.
- From an interview with the Chief of Chaplains, Federal Bureau of
Prisons, Chaplaincy Office (1999).
- Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reporting 1999
Preliminary Annual Report (Washington, D.C., May 1999).
- U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Crime
Victimization 1998, BJS Publication no. 176353 (Washington, D.C.).
- U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Homicide
Trends in the U.S. by Age, Gender and Race (Washington, D.C., 1997).
- U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics,
Incarcerated Parents and Their Children, BJS Publication no. 182335
(Washington, D.C., 2000).
- Among the concerns of victims are their desires to be notified of and
heard at detention hearings, to seek restitution, and to be notified of
escape, among others.
- The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, Report to the Nation on
Occupational Fraud and Abuse <http://www.cfenet.com/newsandfacts/fraudfacts/reporttothenation/index.shtml>
- Andre Kuhn, "Prison Populations in Western Europe," in Overcrowded
Times—A Comparative Perspective, ed. Michael Tonry and K. Hatlestad (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
- Kuhn, "Sanctions and their Severity," in Crime and Criminal Justice
Systems in Europe and North America 1900-1994, ed. K. Kangasunta, M.
Joutsen, and N. Ollus (Helsinki, Finland: European Institute for Crime
Prevention and Control [HEUNI], 1998).
- Amnesty International, United States of America: Rights for All
(London, 1998), 73.
- For example, according to The California Budget Project,
California state expenditures on corrections grew sixfold between 1980 and
1999, while expenditures for education increased only 218 percent over the
same period. California now ranks forty-first among the states in education
dollars per pupil ("Dollars and Democracy: An Advocate's Guide to the
California State Budget Process" [Sacramento, Calif., March 1999]).
- The bishops of Appalachia recognized this trend in the statement At
Home in the Web of Life, noting that in their region "unemployed people
[are] available as cheap labor to guard the countless imprisoned people,
themselves cast off. . . ."
- U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prison and
Jail Inmates, 1999, NCJ no. 183476 (Washington, D.C., 2000).
- U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics,
Correctional Populations in the United States (Washington, D.C., 1998).
- U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prison and
Jail Inmates, 1999, NCJ no. 183476 (Washington, D.C., 2000).
- Cf. Ronald H. Weich and Carlos T. Angulo, Justice on Trial: Racial
Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System, Leadership
Conference on Civil Rights and Leadership Conference Education Fund (April
2000); and The National Council on Crime and Delinquency, And Justice for
Some (April 2000).
- U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Substance
Abuse and Treatment, State and Federal Prisoners, 1997 (Washington,
- U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Mental
Health and Treatment of Inmates and Probationers (Washington, D.C.,
- This figure is derived by comparing corrections figures published by the
U.S. Department of Justice for 1980 and 1999.
- These laws are included in the Illegal Immigration Reform and
Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996.
- F. Cullen and P. Gendreau, "The Effectiveness of Correctional
Rehabilitation: Reconsidering the ‘Nothing Works' Debate," in American
Prisons: Issues in Research and Policy, ed. L. Goodstein and D.
MacKenzie (New York: Plenum, 1989), pp. 23-44; and Robert Martinson, "What
Works?—Questions and Answers about Prison Reform," The Public Interest
(Spring 1974): 22-54.
- National Institute of Justice, 1998 Annual Report on Drug Use Among
Adult and Juvenile Arrestees (Washington, D.C., 1999).
- The four recent national studies that included thousands of subjects are
(1) the Treatment Outcomes Prospective Study (TOPS), (2) the Drug Abuse
Treatment Outcome Study (DATOS), (3) the Services Research Outcomes Study (SROS),
and (4) the National Treatment Improvement Evaluation Study (NTIES). Each of
the studies found strong evidence of effectiveness. For example, TOPS found
that drug treatment resulted in a 60 percent reduction in weekly heroin use
and a 27 percent reduction in predatory crime one year after treatment (R.
L. Hubbard, et al., Drug Abuse Treatment: A National Study of
Effectiveness [Chapel Hill, N.C., 1989], no. 2140). DATOS found a 69
percent reduction in the number of weekly heroin users twelve months after
treatment and found that the probability of being in jail for a person in
outpatient drug programs dropped from 69 percent in the year before
treatment to 25 percent in the year after treatment (Hubbard, et al., an
overview of the one-year follow-up in the "Drug Abuse Treatment Outcome
Study" in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors , no. 2139). SROS
found a 21 percent overall reduction in the use of any illicit drug
following treatment (Office of Applied Studies, Services Research Outcome
Study [Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and
Mental Health Services Administration, 1998], no. 2144). NTIES found that 50
percent of clients used crack in the year before treatment compared to 25
percent during the year after treatment and pinpointed the following
decreases in criminal activity: 78 percent decrease in selling drugs, 82
percent in shoplifting, and 78 percent in beating someone up (D. R.
Gerstein, et al., The National Treatment Evaluation Study: Final Report
[Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration, 1997], no. 2138).
- One study found that the societal costs associated with crime and lost
productivity were reduced by $7.46 as a result of every dollar spent on
treatment. In contrast, these costs were reduced by $0.15 for every dollar
spent on crop eradication programs in other countries, by $0.32 for every
dollar spent on interdiction through cocaine and drug-related assets
seizures, and by $0.52 for every dollar spent on domestic law enforcement
and incarceration (C. P. Rydell and S. S. Everingham, Controlling
Cocaine: Supply Versus Demand Programs [Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND
Corporation, 1994], no. 2134).
- RAND Corporation (1998), no. 2135.
- Don Andrews, Craig Dowden, and Paul Gendreau, "Psychologically Informed
Treatment: Clinically Relevant and Psychologically Informed Approaches to
Reduced Re-Offending: A Meta-Analytic Study of Human Service, Risk, Need,
Responsivity and Other Concerns in Justice Contexts" (1999).
- Byron R. Johnson, David B. Larson, Timothy G. Pitts, "Religious
programs, institutional adjustment, and recidivism among former inmates in
prison fellowship programs," Justice Quarterly 14:1 (March 1997).
- Thomas O'Connor and Crystal Parikh, "Best Practices for Ethics and
Religion in Community Corrections," The ICCA Journal on Community
Corrections 8:4 (1998): 26-32; and A. Skotnicki, "Religion and the
Development of the American Penal System," doctoral dissertation (Graduate
Theological Union, 1992). In these articles, the authors highlight the
traditions of the Puritans and the Quakers and their contributions to our
modern penal system.
- John Paul II, Message of His Holiness John Paul II for the Jubilee in
Prisons (Vatican City, June 24, 2000).
- Cf. the thoughts of Pope John Paul II, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium
Vitae), no. 56: "The problem [of the death penalty] must be viewed in
the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human
dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society."
- Wisconsin's Roman Catholic Bishops, Public Safety, the Common Good,
and the Church: A Statement on Crime and Punishment in Wisconsin
(September 1999). The complete text of this statement is published in
Origins 29:17 (October 7, 1999): 261-266.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition (Washington, D.C.:
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000). Here are relevant
Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who
is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good
requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. (no.
The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to
people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to
the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public
authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate
to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of
redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is
willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation.
Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting
people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must
contribute to the correction of the guilty party. (no. 2266; emphasis
Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been
fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude
recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of
effectively defending human lives against an unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect
people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such
means, as these are more in conformity with the dignity of the human
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has
for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an
offense incapable of doing harm—without definitively taking away from him
the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of
the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically
nonexistent." (no. 2267)
- John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (Washington, D.C.: United
States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1987), no. 38.
- U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Alcohol and
Crime: An Analysis of National Data on the Prevalence of Alcohol Involvement
in Crime (Washington, D.C., 1998).
- Cf. Committee on Marriage and Family and the Committee on Women in
Society and in the Church, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,
When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women
(Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1992).
- However, we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions (i.e.,
police officers, military use), handguns should be eliminated from our
society. "Furthermore, the widespread use of handguns and automatic weapons
in connection with drug commerce reinforces our repeated ‘call for effective
and courageous action to control handguns, leading to their eventual
elimination from our society.'" U.S. Catholic Bishops, New Slavery, New
Freedom: A Pastoral Message on Substance Abuse (Washington, D.C.: United
States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1990), 10.
- Cf. U.S. Catholic Bishops, Renewing the Mind of the Media: A
Statement on Overcoming Exploitation of Sex and Violence in Communication
(Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1998).
- A recent study of issues covered on the evening news by selected major
television stations found that murder stories rose over 300 percent, from 80
in 1990 to 375 in 1995, while actual murder rates in that period declined 13
percent. See Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate (New York: New Press, 1999),
- U.S. Catholic Bishops, Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic
Framework for Action (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of
Catholic Bishops, 1994).
- Administrative Board, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, A
Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty (Washington, D.C.: United
States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1999), 3.
Msgr. Dennis M. Schnurr, General Secretary, NCCB/USCC
The text for Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic
Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice originated from the Committee on
Domestic Policy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It was
approved for publication by the full body of bishops at their November 2000
General Meeting and has been authorized for publication by the undersigned.
Stories from people involved in the criminal justice system are used with
Scripture texts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible,
copyright © 1991, 1986, and 1970 by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine,
Washington, D.C. 20017 and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All
Copyright © 2000, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Inc.,
Washington, D.C. All rights reserved.
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