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Crime and Punishment: Cautious bishops miss the mark in pastoral on crime


I have just been sitting on my porch watching my four laying hens peck about in their small enclosure. I was wondering about the morality of locking them up. Should they be free to roam? They share a certain dignity. I want to respect that. After all they provide me with eggs. I wondered what they think about all day. Just how big is a bird brain? Does being cooped up in a small space worry them? How do they manage not to go crazy? I comforted myself in noting that they were tiny creatures, had each other for company, lived mostly under the open sky and had plenty of water and a variety of foods.

I couldn’t help but realize that their small space was about the same size as a prison cell. We condemn human beings to walk around in similar tiny spaces for years on end. Many prisoners never see the sky or the grass, have poor food and little if any company. Usually they are not allowed to be productive. They lack stimulation to the point where they shut their minds down in order to cope. When they have done their time, we set them free again. Just how mangled are they by this stage? How moral is this whole process? How much in tune with the teachings of Jesus is it? Where does it sit in relation to the death and resurrection of Christ and his life among us?

The U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter on crime and criminal justice, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” has attempted to question the morality of some dimensions of the dilemma posed by the hens. Because of the U.S. global influence, the answers are of considerable interest in countries beyond American shores.

The document has been widely praised in many important American newspapers and it has many fine features. These features include its unequivocal condemnation of the death penalty, supermax prisons and mandatory sentencing laws, and its attempts to deal with simplistic slogans like “three strikes.” It also promotes respect for every person engaged in criminal justice processes, including offenders. It highlights the plight of more than 20,000 illegal immigrants incarcerated in prison awaiting due process and the need for a clear distinction between juvenile offenders and adults. The pastoral letter promotes many positive alternatives to imprisonment including drug programs, restorative justice practices and victim-offender mediation. It gives a nudge of disapproval to the right to carry handguns and to the issue of prisons-for-profit, but raises only gentle questions when clear-cut unequivocal leadership was required.

Overall it lacks the sharp edge that would have moved it from being a good document to being a great one. And that’s a pity. If ever a clarion call to justice was required, it is now and it is urgent. Regrettably, this document does not carry that call. Pastoral it may well be; prophetic it is not. While noting that the criminal justice system “has broken down,” the bishops’ moral courage has largely deserted them when it comes to promoting radical alternatives in line with Christian teachings.

They have missed a tremendous opportunity to condemn unequivocally the use of imprisonment as a weapon against the poor and the obsession of the culture with the failed philosophy of punishment. All the facts and figures are in the document to prove the point. But the bishops have failed to make the connections and to recognize the sinfulness of this structured injustice.

We teach that Christ came with a teaching of mercy, accountability, compassion, forgiveness, healing and reconciliation as a response to wrongdoing. Yet in the bishops’ letter, punishment assumes a dominating role as the principal response of the church to crime. No one suggests that Christ’s teachings are easy. They are often terribly hard. Only Christians imbued with the spirit of Christ will be able to see Christ in both the victim and the prisoner. It is the Christ in us that will see the Christ in them. We should have no expectations that governments or bureaucracies will see Christ in them. All the evidence is that they don’t. Our faith teaches that they won’t. So a teaching document by the bishops should clearly and unequivocally be focused on gospel values and not be dominated by the state’s agenda of sanctions and punishment.

The pastoral also assumes that imprisoning people is OK. Except for those who are dangerous to others and themselves, it is not. It is certainly not OK to have one in every 137 Americans in prison right now. Most countries have less than one in every 1,000. Prisons are an aberration to the norm, not the norm. In the document, they are accepted as a norm.

The bishops’ lack of understanding of the size and effects of the prison-industrial complex is incomprehensible. In his 1988 encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II wrote of the conditions that produce what he called “structures of sin.” He was referring to social systems that enslave or oppress people and attack the common good. These structures of sin are found where people are crushed, marginalized or oppressed and are denied the opportunity to develop their God-given gifts. Should we not say that the modern prison-industrial complex is one such structure of sin?

Why is it in a country where crime rates have been falling for nearly 10 years, prison numbers are still going through the roof? Doesn’t an important part of the answer point to the growth of the prison-industrial complex, which needs more and more inmates to keep itself financially afloat? Surely it is to feed this monster that a 600 percent increase in imprisonment since 1980 has been required? This is where the “three strikes,” mandatory sentencing, turning juveniles into adults and hugely increased drug penalties have their origins. Building on fear and racism and fed by a salacious press and power-hungry politicians, the public has given vent to their collective fears. This is the result. Where in this document is the reflection from church teaching and scripture of the nature of the evil this represents? By not naming and condemning this evil, the bishops are allowing it to grow unchallenged.

They have failed to properly analyze crime. There is an assumption that nearly all crime is individualized crime, largely of the street variety. There is little recognition and no analysis of corporate crime and governmental crime. Yet these are huge areas of criminal offending by any reasonable definition of crime. Corporate crime is endemic the world over. Very few are ever held responsible for its devastating effects. For example, in 1995 the FBI reported that burglary and robbery cost the United States approximately $4 billion a year. In contrast, white-collar fraud cost $200 billion, which is 25 times that amount. The same report said that there were 24,000 street crime homicides that year, while more than twice that number, 56,000, died from job or occupational diseases such as cancers, accidents and brown and black lung disease.

As for governmental crime, the U.S.-backed sanctions imposed on Iraq, which continue to kill thousands each month, are one obvious instance. Another is the illegal and immoral use of depleted uranium in Vieques, Iraq, Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, Puerto Rica and Okinawa, Japan, that has sickened civilian populations and contaminated the earth for generations to come. This is huge crime. So, too, is the injury incurred by the IMF/World Bank demands on a country in obtaining loans and the mortgaging of the future of the poorest countries in repayment of the debt. Another is the production of nuclear waste without the knowledge of how to safely contain it, thus endangering millions.

By failing to reflect even briefly on these types of crime, the bishops have perpetuated the myth that crime remains largely the localized street version. In terms of the victims created, it is not. Systemic crime by corporations and governments remains by far the biggest killer. This document virtually ignores its existence.

In affirming Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on punishment, reiterated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the bishops have failed to deal effectively with the American obsession with punishment, which seems rooted within the very psyche of the nation. How else can one explain the fact that the United States so frequently imposes the death penalty and imprisons at up to 15 times the rate of some European countries? Are American people really that bad? Or, as appears more likely, is the dark side of the culture somehow obsessed with punishment? In the document both automatic punishment and widespread imprisonment are assumed to be valid. The irony is that such assumptions fly in the face of the specific moral teachings on the dignity of the human person that the bishops rightly proclaim. Sadly they fail to nail home the obvious connection between this lack of dignity and a culture wedded to punishment, imprisonment and the death penalty.

The bishops rightly claim they have approached this document on the state of criminal justice in the United States with “caution and modesty.” Indeed they have. But given the urgency of the issues, that’s a great pity. Unlike the hens, human beings need to be free except in exceptional circumstances when they are either a danger to others or to themselves. Restorative and transformative justice processes and victim-offender facilitation should be at the heart of a truly Christian response: They offer both victims and offenders a better form of justice that focuses on the common good. They open the way to all the virtues that Christians preach -- healing, forgiveness, mercy, accountability, compassion, reparation, responsibility and pardon. The bishops’ promotion of them in the pastoral is welcome, but should they not by now be forming the core of Catholic social teaching on these matters?

This is a pastoral letter that could easily have been built around these values. Instead, the bishops chose to tread a more cautious pathway, seeking to offer most sectors of society something positive. The result is disappointing. All things to most people was hardly the way of Jesus. This document lacks the authority and power to change things that desperately need changing. For that, we will all be the losers.

Fr. Jim Consedine has been a prison chaplain for 22 years and is the national coordinator of the Restorative Justice Network in New Zealand. His e-mail address is jimconse@xtra.co.nz

National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2001