Making ‘justice’ the measure of our criminal justice system

On Holy Thursday, Pope Francis will celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in an Italian youth prison, where he will wash and kiss the feet of 12 inmates.

Our new pope has made the mercy and forgiveness of God the Father —  the divine “justice” that we must also show to one another — an early theme of his pontificate. Our system of civil justice, if it is to be humane, must incorporate mercy and forgiveness into its policies as well — never as an abrogation of justice, but as its fulfillment.

Fortunately, this year’s legislative session has seen the introduction of a number of bills aimed at helping to facilitate the productive re-entry of criminal offenders into society, as well as help reduce repeat offenses.

In particular, the Minnesota Catholic Conference is advocating for the passage of H.F. 690 (Mahoney)/S.F. 523 (Champion), known as “ban the box,” which would forbid private employers from seeking information about an applicant’s criminal history until he or she has been selected for an interview and has an opportunity to explain him or herself.

“Ban the box,” like other legislation, seeks to limit the “collateral consequences” associated with crime and punishment. If barriers to affordable housing, education and employment are placed in the path of ex-offenders, how can we expect that they will do anything other than turn again to a life of crime?

Such legislation seeks to help offenders re-enter society. It is the product of growing consensus across the political spectrum, and among what might be called “non-traditional allies,” that communities need to make “justice” a priority of the “criminal justice system.” Justice means rendering what is due to both victim and offender.

A Catholic approach

In the year 2000, the Catholic bishops of the United States issued a statement entitled, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice” that called for a national dialogue on issues related to crime and punishment. After decades of rising crime between the 1960s and the 1980s, crime rates began to decrease in the 1990s. Much debate emerged as to why this was the case, and many concluded that the building of more prisons and tougher sentencing rules (“three strikes and you’re out”) was the cause.

Underscoring that not all methods of reducing crime are consistent with the teachings of the Church and the ideals of our nation (e.g. a “police state” that liberally exercises the death penalty), the bishops offered their own assessment of the nation’s criminal justice system.  “RRR” sought to:

  • Explore aspects of crime and punishment in our society;
  • Examine the implications of the Church’s teaching for crime and punishment;
  • Apply principles of Catholic social teaching to the criminal justice system and suggest some directions for policy on crime and punishment; and
  • Encourage action by Catholics to shape new alternatives.

The bishops note in “RRR” that a Catholic vision of crime and punishment seems to be 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.”

Therefore, Catholic teaching inspired by Gospel values offers an alternative to the false dichotomy of “tough on crime” vs. “soft on crime.”
To be more specific, a Catholic approach to crime and justice “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.”

A new dialogue

“RRR” was a prophetic document and did in fact provide momentum for criminal justice reform on both the political left and right.

For example, in 2008, President Bush signed into law the Second Chance Act, which is federal legislation designed to ensure the safe and successful return of prisoners to the community.  The Second Chance Act provides grants to local governments and organizations to help provide literacy classes, job training, education programs, and substance abuse and rehabilitation programs for offenders.  Its goal is to reduce recidivism, and decrease the billions of dollars spent annually on incarceration.

The Second Chance Act is a good step in the right direction, but more can be done here in Minnesota, which is why MCC is supporting “ban the box” and other legislation that seeks to help offenders re-enter society.

In “RRR,” the bishops stated:  “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 re-integration of all into the community.”

The words of the bishops and the example of the Holy Father are powerful reminders of the dignity of all persons, including those who have committed crimes, and that we must work to give those who have offended opportunities for a second chance and to rebuild their lives.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference. 

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