Criminals, Justice and 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
Statistics, Seeing Individuals
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
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?
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.”
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
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
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
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.