Bishops discuss statement on U.S. criminal justice

By Jerry Filteau, Catholic News Service

Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Washington called for major reforms in the U.S. criminal justice system on June 15th as he presented the U.S. bishops with a draft pastoral statement on crime and criminal justice.

"As pastors, we bury too many young people lost in crime, drugs and gangs," he said. "We live with far too much crime and violence, but we cannot respond with simply more and more prisons, more and more executions." Bishop Skylstad, a member and past chairman of the bishops' Domestic Policy Committee, presented the document to the U.S. bishops during their June 15-17, 2000 meeting in Milwaukee on behalf of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, committee chairman, who was unable to attend.

The draft statement calls for "new efforts to rebuild lives, not just build more prisons." It bluntly rejects "simplistic solutions such as three strikes and you're out and rigid mandatory sentencing." It urges greater focus on "crime prevention and poverty reduction" in an overall strategy to fight crime.

Near the end of the text is a two-page plea for an end to the use of the death penalty in the United States. "Capital punishment is cruel and unnecessary. It is arbitrary. It often has racial overtones and fails to live up to our deep conviction that all human life is sacred," it says.

At their Milwaukee meeting the bishops had a preliminary discussion of the draft. Bishop Skylstad said the committee would refine the text in light of other comments and hopes to bring back a final version for them to vote on in November.

The 37-page draft is titled Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.

A Catholic approach to criminal justice "begins with the recognition that the dignity of the human person includes both victim and offender and insists on justice without vengeance," it says.

At its core, Catholic teaching on crime and punishment is a paradox. "We will not tolerate the crime and violence that threaten the lives and dignity of our sisters and brothers, and we will not give up on those who have lost their way. We seek both justice and mercy," the draft says.

After consulting with all sectors involved in criminal justice, from offenders to victims, from police and prosecutors to wardens and prison chaplains, the draft says "all parties 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."

The statement decries the "astounding rate of incarceration" as a response to crime in the United States. In 1998 the imprisonment rate in America was 668 per 100,000. This is six to 12 times higher than other Western countries," it says.

The statement notes that "from 1972 to 1999 the U.S. prison population rose nearly eightfold, from 250,000 to almost 2 million. Nationally we now spend over $35 billion annually on corrections, but public debate rarely encourages serious dialogue about the costs of incarceration versus less costly alternatives such as prevention, education, community alternatives and drug treatment," it says.

The statement pays special attention to drug abuse and crime. Those in prison, it says, include "40 percent who are incarcerated for drug offenses and 60-80 percent who have a history of substance abuse. One area of criminal activity which seems to respond to treatment is substance abuse," it says, adding that some studies "suggest that drug treatment is a very cost-effective approach to reducing substance abuse and crime. The savings to taxpayers from quality substance abuse treatment versus imprisonment is significant - three to one in a recent RAND Corporation study."

The statement encourages development of more "community-based programs that offer mediation between offenders and victims when possible." 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, according to the bishops' statement.

The draft statement stresses that "reform and rehabilitation should always be the goal in punishing someone for a crime. Centuries ago," it says, "St. Thomas Aquinas taught 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."

While it outlines a wide range of proposals to reduce crime more effectively and treat criminals and victims with more compassion and dignity, the statement says something deeper is needed. Even with a new vision, new ideas and new strategies, we 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 right and wrong, family and community, respect and responsibility, mercy and justice."

During the discussion bishop after bishop stood up to endorse the thrust of the document, stress its urgency and suggest ways to strengthen it before bringing it to a final vote in November. Cardinal Adam J. Maida of Detroit suggested that it would be a valuable document for ecumenical action because many churches share those concerns.

Several bishops called for expanded treatment of some areas, such as the role of prison chaplains and the importance of prison ministry, including specific issues such as treatment of women prisoners and the growing tendency to put juvenile offenders in the adult system.

Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, New Mexico asked for attention to possible negative implications for prisoner treatment and rehabilitation as the for-profit prison industry grows.

Bishop Skylstad told reporters afterward that he was encouraged by the "wide, strong support and feeling of urgency among the bishops" that the draft text provoked.

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