Restoring All to the Fullness of Life: A Pastoral Statement on Criminal Justice

Published on September 22nd, 2000

A Pastoral Statement on Criminal Justice for the Jubilee Year

Criminal Justice: The Need for Reform

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Isaiah 61:1-2, Luke 4: 18-19).

In 1982, we Bishops addressed the need for criminal justice reform in our state in a comprehensive statement that recognized the far-reaching ramifications of crime—for the victim, the offender, and our society as a whole.

Fully supportive of the state’s primary responsibility to protect the safety of the public, we questioned whether that responsibility is best met by an almost exclusive emphasis on incarceration. We urged an effort to develop viable alternatives to what was at the time a dramatic increase in the state’s inmate population, and a consequent rush to construct more prisons. Our recommendations included reasonable bail policies for those charged with non-violent offenses; alternatives to incarceration for those convicted of non-violent crimes; treatment programs, in place of or in conjunction with prison terms for offenders suffering from mental illness or substance abuse; and the chance for offenders to improve themselves while incarcerated, through educational opportunities, adequate health care including psychiatric treatment where needed, and the opportunity for religious worship and spiritual growth. It is with sadness and concern that we note that unfortunately few, if any, of these recommendations were fully implemented.

A Christian Perspective

“I, the Lord, have called you for the victory of justice, I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” (Isaiah 42: 6-7)

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5: 7)

The ensuing years have seen a continued and even more intense emphasis on imprisonment, as well as reinstatement of the death penalty. We thus feel called, in this Jubilee Year, to renew our invitation to the people of New York State to embrace an approach to criminal justice that focuses on restoration of wholeness—through healing for the victim, rehabilitation and re-integration for the offender, and safety and stability for society. As our Holy Father instructed us in his July 9, 2000 Message for the Jubilee in Prisons: “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.”

Such an approach is founded in the Church’s consistent ethic of life, which upholds the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, and is wholly consistent with the teachings and example of Christ. Indeed, Gospel accounts of His public ministry are replete with instances of Jesus endeavoring to restore right relationships between people through justice tempered with mercy. Recall, for example, in the Gospel of John, when Jesus admonished a crowd preparing to stone a woman to death for committing adultery: “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Then, the crowd having dispersed in silence, He admonished the woman: “Go, and sin no more.” Jesus rejected retribution, instead offering mercy, forgiveness and the opportunity for restoration.

A Restorative Approach to Justice

“The Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.”(Isaiah 25: 6-10) “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147)

“Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:32)

Thus do we, in the name of Christ, embrace restorative practices in the critical area of criminal justice.

Crime prevention efforts that are founded on a commitment to the sanctity and dignity of every human life will best restore safety and stability to society. Victims are best restored to wholeness through treatment of their physical and emotional injuries; assurance of corrective punishment for those who have done them harm; just compensation when feasible; and a loving invitation to healing and forgiveness. For offenders, restoration requires penalties that offer correction as well as punishment: rehabilitation programs, healing alternatives to incarceration where feasible, and post-incarceration programs to assist with re-integration into society.

The Church recognizes our own responsibility to be involved in this work. Church-sponsored programs serve as models of treatment approaches throughout New York State:

  • in the Albany Diocese, the multifaceted Altamont program serves addicted persons and prison inmates re-entering society, and Arbor House Day Program supports inmates re-entering society and their families;
  • in the Brooklyn Diocese, My Mother’s Place and Providence House work to preserve and enhance family relationships between women inmates and their children;
  • St. Joseph’s Center in Saranac Lake in the Ogdensburg Diocese and St Christopher’s Inn in Graymoor in the Archdiocese of New York have success rates of well over 50 per cent in treating the toughest cases of alcohol addiction;
  • Abraham House in the Archdiocese of New York, through a program that substitutes treatment for incarceration, has reduced recidivism to nearly zero;
  • Rogers House in the Diocese of Rochester and Hope House in the Diocese of Buffalo specialize in successful re-integration for state inmates returning to their local communities;
  • Dismas House and Talbot House in the Diocese of Rockville Centre have been widely recognized for their quality services to dually addicted persons;
  • Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Syracuse operates outstanding alcohol community residences in Utica and Cortland.

The successes generated by these programs offer convincing evidence that treatment works, and that development and support of such programs must be an essential component of an effective, restorative criminal justice system.

In addition, the Church has appointed religious chaplains to local jails and New York state prisons for well over one hundred years. The provision of religious services through the chaplains contributes to the rehabilitation and good order of inmates and correctional facilities. As the State Catholic Chaplaincy Apostolate Committee stated in its June 1998 Report to the New York State Roman Catholic Bishops: “When in society certain people are separated from its midst, the chaplain both advocates for their rights and invites them to change their lives while challenging others to accept change. The role of the chaplain is to be a nonjudgmental, caring presence that represents the redemptive aspects of the situation—hope, love and concern.”

Where possible, we also encourage crime victims to come together with those who have injured them, so that through mediated face-to-face encounters they can speak about the experience and try to reconcile with one another. Survivors of crime who participate in such healing processes can often experience empowerment, a reduced sense of fear and reduced desire for retaliation. Offenders may be more sensitized to the suffering their actions have caused, and perhaps moved toward rehabilitation through the forgiveness they experience. Both victim and offender can come to view one another as human beings worthy of dignity and respect. Pope John Paul II modeled this approach when he met, prayed with and forgave the man who shot him.

Implementing Restorative Justice

A criminal justice system committed to restoration of wholeness for crime victims, offenders, and society requires attention to each of the following areas:

1. Public Safety

“When the just cry out, the Lord hears them, and from all their distress he rescues them.” (Psalm 34)

The fundamental purpose of the criminal justice system is to provide for the safety of the public. The purpose of laws and law enforcement is to see that the freedom and security of all is protected from those who would violate it.

Of course, this mandates that the legal consequences of violating the law be severe enough to deter those who would do harm to others, and to encourage those who have done such harm to refrain from repeating their crimes. At the same time, public safety requires attention to the root causes of crime, such as poverty, poor education, family breakdown, substance abuse, racism, and society’s increasing acceptance of violence.

In addition, protection of the public requires that our criminal justice system be designed not merely to punish, but also to rehabilitate. It is essential to the safety of society that offenders be given every opportunity to restore themselves to wholeness, and re-integrate themselves as productive, law-abiding members of the community. This requires alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders, opportunities for self-improvement through education, treatment and counseling, either in conjunction with or instead of prison terms, and judicial discretion in determining the kind of sentence that offers the best opportunity to enhance public safety by rehabilitating the offender.

2. Respect for Human Life and Human Dignity

“What came to be through Him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1: 1-18)

Protecting public safety requires upholding the sanctity and dignity of every human life. Crime victims not only suffer physical assaults, but also assaults on their human dignity. Our criminal justice system best upholds the sacredness and dignity of life through deterrent and corrective punishment, restitution, where appropriate, and efforts to heal and restore victims and to rehabilitate and restore those who have harmed them.

The lives and dignity of those convicted of crimes must also be respected. This is essential to efforts to help them restore their own wholeness; but is also essential to us, as a society, in upholding the sacredness and dignity of all human life. “Whatever you do to the least of these,” Jesus taught us, “you do to Me.” Thus, when we assault the dignity or destroy the life of even the most hardened criminal, we assault Christ. Our treatment of those convicted of crimes must always be humane. We must avoid extreme forms of confinement and abusive punishment, and we must emphatically reject the death penalty.

3. Fair and Equal Treatment

“Judgment is stern for the exalted—For the lowly may be pardoned out of mercy but the mighty shall be mightily put to the test. For the Lord of all shows no partiality.” (Wisdom 6: 2-11)

“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.” (Acts 10: 36)

Equal treatment under the law is a cornerstone of democratic society. Studies continue to show, however, that poor persons, ethnic and racial minorities, and immigrants experience vastly different treatment within our criminal justice system than do those with wealth and power. The disproportionate numbers of these groups among our prison population is only one indication of this disparity. The lack of means and influence affects the quality of legal representation, the ability to negotiate, the ability to appeal, and even the perception of the individual defendant in the media, the community, and the criminal justice system itself.

4. Corrections

“Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.” (Psalm 51)

“Even time in prison does not escape God’s dominion. Public authorities who deprive human beings of their personal freedom as the law requires…must realize that they are not masters of the prisoners’ time. In the same way, those who are in detention must not live as if their time in prison had been taken from them completely: even time in prison is God’s time.” (Message of His Holiness John Paul II for the Jubilee in Prisons, July 9, 2000).

Our system of corrections should be just that: a system designed to correct, not only the wrongdoing of offenders, but also the causes of their wrongdoing. It must serve the goal of restorative justice, healing the victims of crime, offering rehabilitation and re-integration to those convicted of crimes, and restoring safety to a society destabilized by crime.

To accomplish this, our corrections policies must protect society by incarcerating those who endanger public safety, and it must provide assurance to victims that those who have harmed them will be justly punished. If it is to be truly restorative, however, it must do more than this. For the good of society, the protection of potential victims, and the restoration of the offender, corrections policies must focus on identifying and treating the root causes of crime. We must offer those convicted of crimes the opportunity to improve themselves, and assist in their re-integration into society.

To this end, we urge that our criminal justice system:

  • identify and treat addiction and mental illness in offenders;
  • provide therapeutic and educational opportunities for inmates from the first days of their incarceration;
  • develop and implement alternatives to incarceration, such as diversion to treatment centers for those with substance abuse or mental health issues, and community service that may enable convicted persons to make restitution to society; and
  • reject efforts to end probation and parole, instead providing adequate support services for these and other programs designed to assist inmates in re-integrating into society.

Current Issues

“The Lord is kind and merciful; slow to anger, and rich in compassion.” (Psalm 145)

As we work to apply the principles of restorative justice, we find several current criminal justice policies in urgent need of reform.

1. Capital Punishment

Our faith teaches us that every human life is inherently precious. “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity,” Pope John Paul II made clear in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life). Our respect for life must be unconditional, upholding the sanctity and dignity of the convicted criminal’s life just as we do that of the innocent child from the moment of conception.

While we fully recognize the need for appropriate punishment for those who do violence to others, the death penalty is wholly inconsistent with every component of restorative justice:

Capital punishment undermines respect for human life, perpetuating and even intensifying the cycle of violence. As such, its tragic consequences go beyond the individual lives destroyed by execution. It also plunges us ever deeper into the culture of death, undermining the “unconditional respect for life” which the Gospel of Life says must be “the foundation of a new society.”

No human being is beyond God’s redemptive mercy. Yet the death penalty offers retribution rather than mercy, and allows no possibility of rehabilitation and restoration.

Studies show that capital punishment does not act as a deterrent to violent crime, and thus does not enhance public safety.

In fact, the death penalty endangers innocent people. Following the release of inmates wrongly sentenced to death, Illinois recently became the first state to enact a moratorium on executions. A growing number of states are now considering such an approach.

It does not facilitate fair and equal treatment. The death penalty is imposed primarily on the poor and minorities, in widely disproportionate numbers.

Church teaching, clearly delineated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, holds that whenever bloodless means are sufficient to protect the safety of society, “public authority should limit itself to such means.” Pope John Paul II, in the Gospel of Life, observes that circumstances where bloodless means would not suffice are “rare if not practically nonexistent” in today’s criminal justice systems. Yet tragically, legislative initiatives have now been proposed that would further expand the death penalty in New York State, making more defendants eligible for execution.

New York State must find effective alternatives that do not further brutalize society through state-sanctioned violence. We urge once again, in the strongest terms, repeal of New York’s death penalty statute.

In the interim, we urge a moratorium on executions so that no death will result from the 1995 Death Penalty law; and as a first step toward developing non-lethal means of protecting society from violent crime.

2. The Rockefeller Drug Laws

Under the harsh and mandatory sentencing provisions of the Rockefeller drug laws, more than 23,000 New Yorkers are in prison for substance violations—9,000 incarcerated in 1998 alone. Many are non-violent first time offenders, including mothers of young children. Incarcerating them for long periods of time does not serve to enhance public safety, nor does it offer the most effective approach to rehabilitation and restoration.
As we urged in our statement of June 1999, New York’s drug sentencing laws must be modified to permit judicial discretion in sentencing, and to make greater use of drug treatment programs—as an alternative to prison where possible, or in conjunction with jail time where incarceration is clearly indicated. In addition, we must place greater emphasis on community support services that will assist convicted drug offenders in avoiding further substance abuse as they re-integrate themselves into society. As we stated in June 1999: “As moral teachers, we believe the time has come after a quarter century of experience, to urge all New Yorkers to advocate for a more humane and effective system to rehabilitate addicts and protect public safety.”

3. Special Housing Units (SHUs)

Given the need to segregate prison inmates for periods of time for disciplinary or administrative purposes, New York State has developed “Special Housing Units” where inmates spend 23 hours a day locked in single cells. Access to personal hygiene, physical exercise, human contact and religious services is severely restricted. Recently, the state has begun double-celling inmates in SHUs, with minimal contact between inmates and prison staff. They are kept under surveillance through electronic and sound monitors.

This situation raises very serious concerns:

  • The human dignity of inmates is compromised by extended confinement in such units.
  • Rather than restoration and rehabilitation, such extended isolation threatens to inflict mental harm on inmates. Recent studies suggest that lengthy periods of isolated incarceration can induce psychosis in inmates with mental disorders, and serious psychotic symptoms in those without prior mental disorders.
  • The double-celling of inmates raises serious concerns about physical safety, and the potential for inmates to be victimized by their cellmates.

We are concerned about the number of people confined to SHUs and increasing lengths of time they are held there. Emotionally unstable and mentally ill inmates should only be assigned to segregated housing if there is direct evidence demonstrating that they are at risk of physically hurting staff, other inmates, or themselves.

A New Era

“For the Church, the Jubilee is precisely this ‘year of the Lord’s favor’, a year of the remission of sins and of the punishments due to them, a year of reconciliation between disputing parties, a year of manifold conversions and of sacramental and extra-sacramental penance.”(Tertio Millennio Adveniente, Apostolic Letter by Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II)

Scripture tells us that, at a time of Jubilee, debts were to be forgiven and right relationships, in terms of property and indenture, were to be restored. The Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 is, then, an opportune time to revise our state’s criminal justice system, in a way that will restore right relationships between crime victims, criminal offenders, and all of society.

We must reject the traditional emphasis on retribution that manifests itself in an over-reliance on incarceration and resort to the death penalty. We must instead balance corrective punishment with efforts at healing, forgiveness, and rehabilitation.

We also need to consider how we might incorporate restorative practices into our daily lives in our homes, schools, communities and workplaces. We must reject reliance on government as the primary or exclusive agent of change. This can divert our attention away from the obligation we have to each other to create loving communities and forums in which we might respond restoratively to those who have been harmed, as well as those who have done injury to others.

Moreover, when we create faith communities in which the needs of all are taken into account, and human failure is treated with dignity, we affirm the sanctity and dignity of every human life, and prevent violence at the most elemental level—lessening the need for corrective action by the state. In our daily lives we become God’s children of grace committed to the paramount Christian virtue, to love one another without measure.

Let us enter the new millennium committed to living and working toward restorative justice, in our homes, in our communities, and in our society—so that all human life will be treated with dignity and respect; all victims of crime will be comforted and healed; and all who harm others will be forgiven and restored to wholeness—as each of us would have Christ forgive us.

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