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Criminals, Justice and Change


Seeing Statistics, Seeing Individuals

Fears and Misapprehensions

How Might We Change?

Pope John Paul II is no stranger to Rome’s overcrowded Regina Coeli Prison. He has continued a tradition of visits begun by Pope John XXIII to this facility. Only 10 minutes away, Regina Coeli is definitely in the Vatican’s backyard.

Bad precedent! We Americans want no prisons that close to our yards! We want all society’s “enemies” under lock and key—far, far from our houses.

Seeing Statistics, Seeing Individuals

Newsweek reported last November: “Never before have so many Americans—roughly 14 million—faced the likelihood of imprisonment. Some two million are currently behind bars.... America’s rate of imprisonment is the highest on the planet.” Two percent of America’s children must visit prison to see Mom or Dad.

In that same month, Time observed: “Half of the 1.5 million kids with an incarcerated parent will commit a crime before they turn 18.” Why? The children feel guilty, stigmatized and abandoned. Visits are often through a window—no hugs included.

When introducing the bishops’ document, Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony observed last November that more U.S. citizens are in prison than are on active duty in the Armed Forces or in all U.S. graduate schools combined. Within the document, the bishops point out that, although African-Americans are 12 percent of the U.S. population, they are 49 percent of its prisoners. Hispanic-Americans are nine percent of our population but 19 percent of prisoners. Seventy percent of prisoners did not complete high school; 200,000 are diagnosed with some form of mental illness.

These numbers tell us something. The personal testimonies the bishops have included tell us more. Many Catholic spokespersons are cited: parents of inmates, prison chaplains, prisoners, victims, wardens, judges and advocates—real people with real issues.

Is criminal incarceration effective? Is it just? How many of us know someone who is—or has been—in prison? When did we visit them? What indignities and red tape did we endure? How were we able to assist or support?

Fears and Misapprehensions

Women’s prison superintendent Dana Blank says, “Most of these women will get out one day....What condition do you want them in when they get out and move next door to you?” Yes, they will continue to be our neighbors, by virtue of address and by virtue of the Gospel.

We must preserve and protect the common good and restore order, but we must also restore the offender—who needs to be healed, responsible and rehabilitated. Retaliation and vengeance are both un-Christian and unlikely to mend offenders and society.

Against this knowledge, we harbor many fears: What about sexual predators? What about the high rates of repeat offenders? What about the failures of parole-probation systems? What about public safety? What about deterrence? Vengeance? Restitution? Freedom? Morals? What about our very souls?

During the Jubilee Day for Prisoners last July, Pope John Paul said, “The pain inflicted by prison only makes sense if, while asserting the demands of justice and discouraging crime, it also serves the renewal of the inmate, offering the one who erred a chance to reflect and to change his life, and then to be reinserted into society with full rights.”

How Might We Change?

The bishops propose actions that each of us can take. We must choose to act before the statistics numb us into retreat. The following choices flow from the bishops’ text.

1. Respect life. The roots of criminal behavior are strongly linked to dysfunctional families, inadequate housing in dangerous neighborhoods and low educational achievement. Adequate child care, affordable housing and safe schools where education is possible: Your vote, your tax dollars, your activism can help these happen.

2. Support victims and their families. The bishops point out that the Church is visibly present to the victims of hurricanes, fires, droughts and floods. We need to connect the victims of crime with services offered by our social-service agencies.

3. Assist offenders and their families. A prisoner is poised for change. It could be positive change, if positive people—pastoral ministers, counselors, teachers—answer the call to minister in correctional institutions.

4. Build community. Join a neighborhood watch group and support community-oriented policing (should there be any other kind?). Partner with law-enforcement officers to offer support.

5. Give generously to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Among the good works of this national agency are grants offered for innovative prison-reform programs. These can include more all-encompassing prisoner reentry programs and other safety nets for those affected by crime—and by punishment.

6. Affect public policy. The bishops invite us to the domestic issues icon on their Web site, www.nccbuscc.org/sdwp, which details ways to impact national legislation. Many dioceses have parallel organizations at the diocesan and/or state conference level.

Criminal justice must not be an oxymoron. The bishops write, “We will not tolerate the crime and violence that threaten the lives and dignity of our sisters and brothers, and we will not give up on those who have lost their way.” It’s a welcome vision.—C.A.M.

 

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