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Bishops write on criminal justice

Special Report Writer

In many American parishes, church doors are locked, microphones hidden. Some parishes spend more on bars for their windows than on flowers for their altars. Crime is never far from the Catholic community, U.S. bishops note in a recent statement on crime and criminal justice.

In other parishes, Catholic youths join gangs or get involved in drug trade and die, often to be buried in Catholic cemeteries. Some lose hope and take their own lives.

In hopes of stimulating “a renewed dialogue” among Catholics and others about crime and punishment, the bishops will recommend their 39-page statement, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” when they meet in Washington Nov. 13-16.

Catholics involved in prison ministries said they welcome the statement. It’s a field in which heightened awareness and more workers are needed, they said.

Work on the document began several years ago when a number of bishops called for a pastoral statement on criminal justice. Their appeal emerged in the midst of greater concerns about crime, the increasing rate of incarceration, growth of victims’ rights groups and the difficulties voiced by Catholic chaplains and others involved in the criminal justice system.

The Domestic Policy Committee of the U.S. Catholic Conference has been working on drafts of the statement since January 1998. Following two years of consultations across the nation with prison chaplains, corrections officials, judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, treatment personnel, crime victims, offenders and the families of both, the bishops conclude that “the system is broken in many ways.”

New alternatives for rehabilitation

“Victims are often ignored, offenders are often not rehabilitated and many communities have lost their sense of security,” the statement says. After looking at aspects of crime and punishment in America, the bishops examine the implications of church teaching on these matters and apply principles of Catholic social thought to the criminal justice system.

They also encourage Catholics to shape new alternatives for rehabilitation and restoration that might counter the use of punishment as retribution. “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,” they write.

While the statement is unlikely to release any prisoners, it may open the eyes of the faithful. According to Deacon Frank Beville of Oakland, Calif., most Catholics are “totally unaware” of who goes to prison, why they’re there, what goes on inside and what prospects are for life outside the walls if and when prisoners win release. Their ignorance is “by design,” he said, as most prisons are isolated and difficult to reach.

Since January, Beville and 149 active volunteers in the Oakland diocese have visited some 18,000 inmates in federal, county and juvenile facilities.

Research and consultations by the drafters of the statement reveal that 30 percent of the 140,000 federal prison inmates are Catholic. Hundreds of thousands more Catholics are held in state penitentiaries, county and city jails, or detention centers or are in probation, parole and treatment programs.

The U.S. imprisonment rate in 1998 was 668 per 100,000 citizens, a rate six to twelve times higher than that of other Western nations. The number has increased eight-fold since 1972, rising from 250,000 prisoners then, to 2 million today. The cost of maintaining this population runs to more than $35 billion annually.

The bishops give this statistical profile of the prison population:

  • 40 percent are drug offenders.
  • 60-80 percent have a history of substance abuse.
  • 70 percent did not finish high school.
  • 10 percent suffer from some form of mental illness.
  • 92.6 percent are parents, who collectively have 1.5 million children under age 18.
  • 41 percent are African-Americans, a group that makes up only 12 percent of the U.S. population.
  • 14 percent are Hispanics, a group that makes up only 9 percent of the U.S. population.
  • 1 percent or more are foreign nationals detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, many of whom spend months or even years in detention centers because they are refused repatriation by their countries of origin.

Skeptical about for-profit prisons

The bishops tread softly on the rapid growth of prisons and those who operate them. “We bishops are skeptical about whether private, for-profit corporations can effectively run prisons and meet the critical goals of changing behaviors, treating substance abuse problems and offering skills necessary for reintegration into the community.

“Regardless of who runs prisons, we oppose the increasing use of isolation units, all unnecessary force, overcrowding, sexual abuse, racial discrimination and any behavior by prison personnel that is inhumane and undignified.”

Not only does the huge outlay spent on American prisons mean less for education, health, human services and public transportation in many states, it also leaves fewer dollars for probation and parole programs, halfway houses, community treatment options and other post-release programs, the bishops state.

Throughout their statement, they attempt to strike a balance between accountability and rehabilitation of offenders. They note that the community has a right to establish norms and enforce laws to protect people and to advance the common good. They also note that “a Catholic approach does not give up on those who violate these norms.”

The statement on prisons is the latest in a series of statements from the bishops on crime and related subjects. Documents released since 1990 have taken up substance abuse, domestic violence, the culture of violence, the media’s exploitation of sex and violence, and the death penalty.

The bishops suggest efforts to “teach right from wrong, respect for life and the law, forgiveness and mercy.” They appeal to Catholics to stand with victims and their families as well as to reach out to offenders and their families and advocate for more treatment.

If their message is to be effective, “it must get to the bishops themselves and make them and pastors aware of prisons and prison ministry,” said Bishop Arthur Tafoya of Pueblo, Colo. Visits, Bible studies, communion services and the sponsoring of catechumenate candidates in prisons are all jobs being done by chaplains and lay volunteers in Tafoya’s see.

St. Joseph Sr. Suzanne Jabro finds the bishops’ criminal justice statement more pastoral than prophetic. Jabro, who is director of detention ministry for the Los Angeles archdiocese, feels it is less likely to galvanize Catholics into action than the bishops’1983 peace pastoral.

“So many pastors and parish leaders don’t grasp what church teaching is on the death penalty. The bishops have to move in steps,” she said. She noted that Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney sent a video about the death penalty to all parishes in the archdiocese asking them to show it on the final weekend in October.

Jabro’s office received calls that the video was “too political,” or could not be shown, as that would imply that the parish had to allow other videos to be shown. “There’s a lot of resistance on this issue and because it’s just one more thing to do,” Jabro said.

Jabro believes that if the bishops are serious about prison ministry they will hire full-time directors of detention ministry.

“These people can’t be volunteers. They must be trained and credentialed by their diocese to work in the system, she said.

The shortage of priests and the lack of training have left several jobs for prison chaplains unfilled in California and elsewhere. The remoteness of prison locations has also contributed to the chaplaincy shortage. Increasingly women religious, deacons and lay people are coming forward to fill the posts, Jabro said, often serving people who’ve gone years, even decades without receiving the church’s sacraments.

The bishops have renewed their call for ending the death penalty at a time when several hundred European politicians, legislators and global activists gathered in Paris Oct. 21 to urge the United States to stop executions.

Although the bishops’ document does not urge Catholics to join either the abolitionist or moratorium movements against capital punishment, their statement could help to build momentum for the ending of state executions. “It is time to abandon the death penalty,” the bishops said, “not just because of what it does to those who are executed, but because of how it diminishes all of us.”

If the prelates want this statement to succeed, they must at the very least get priests to speak about abuses in the criminal justice system, said Diane Tramutola Lawson of Denver.

Tramutola Lawson, whose husband, Hayward, is serving a life sentence for murder in Canon City, Colo., said that she has never heard a sermon on the death penalty in her Denver parish though homilies, banners and literature against abortion proliferate at the church. “The bishops’ statement is too broad and has no teeth in it,” she said. “If the local priest won’t preach about what’s in it, the bishops should send around some of their Justice and Peace Office staff to talk about it.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000