Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration:
A Catholic Perspective
on Crime and Criminal Justice
A Statement of the Catholic Bishops of the
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
Pope John Paul II, July 9, 2000
Table of Contents
Crime and the Catholic Community
Some Dimensions of Crime and Punishment in the United States
Policy Foundations and
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
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
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
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
Examine the implications of the Church's
teaching for crime and punishment
Apply principles of Catholic social teaching
to the criminal justice system and suggest some directions for policy on
crime and punishment
Encourage action by Catholics to shape new
Some Dimensions of Crime and Punishment in the
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
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 on parole.14
Hispanic Americans make up 9 percent of the
U.S. population but 19 percent of prisoners in state and federal
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
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
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 enter prison.19
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
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 potential.23
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 common good.
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
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 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 one's sin)
Absolution: After someone has shown
contrition, acknowledged his or her sin, and offered satisfaction, then
Jesus, through the ministry of the priest and in the company of the
church community, forgives the sin and welcomes that person back into
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
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 justice.
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
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 following foundations:
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 rigid formulations.
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 reduction.
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 life.
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'
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 lives.
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
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 purpose.
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 communities.
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
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
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 society.
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 addictive behavior.
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 security.
"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 improve.
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
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
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 mercy.
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 inmates.
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
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
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 stronger families.
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 policies.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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, D.C., 2000]).
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, no. 32.
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 their actions.
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.
Promote a culture of life, alternatives to
abortion by supporting adoption, foster care, and homes for unwed
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 movies.
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
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
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
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 agencies).
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
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.
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
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 criminal justice.
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
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.
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
for 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 gospel values.
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.,
U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice
Statistics, Crime Victimization 1998, BJS Publication no. 176353
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
Andre Kuhn, "Prison Populations in Western
Europe," in Overcrowded Times—A Comparative Perspective, ed.
Michael Tonry and K. Hatlestad (New York: Oxford University Press,
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, D.C., 1999).
U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice
Statistics, Mental Health and Treatment of Inmates and Probationers
(Washington, D.C., 1999).
This figure is derived by comparing
corrections figures published by the U.S. Department of Justice for 1980
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,
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):
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd
edition (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,
2000). Here are relevant passages:
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. 2265)
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 added)
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
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
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),
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), 172.
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),
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
Msgr. Dennis M. Schnurr, General Secretary, NCCB/USCC
Stories from people involved in the criminal justice system are used with
Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective
on Crime and Criminal Justice is available in a print edition and may be
ordered by telephoning (800) 235-8722. Ask for publication number 5-394 for
the English edition or 5-846 for the Spanish edition; the cost is $5.95 for
a single copy, plus shipping and handling.