Respect Life Month: Working to End the Death Penalty

“Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.” Pope Francis, March 20, 2015

This memorial dedicated to Sister Paula Merrill, a member of the Sisters of Nazareth, and Sister Margaret Held, a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee, was blessed and dedicated May 20 in Durant, Miss. The women, who were murdered in their home last fall, were nurse practitioners at a local health clinic. (CNS photo/Ruthie Robison, Mississippi Catholic)

Just over a year ago, two Catholic nuns were brutally murdered in Durant, Mississippi. Sister Margaret M. Held, a School Sister of St. Francis, and Sister Paula J. Merrill, a Sister of Charity of Nazareth, were beloved and committed nurse practitioners serving some of the poorest children and families in the country.  The community health clinic where they worked is in the 7th poorest county in the country, in the hungriest and poorest state in our nation.

The sisters’ ministry embodied what the Church calls “preferential option for the poor.”  The senseless loss of these sisters has caused tremendous pain for their families, their local clients, and their religious communities.

If you have followed this story at any length, likely you have been captivated by the courageous, Christ-like response the sisters’ religious Congregations shared following the murder, in part: “We want to reiterate our beliefs as women of faith, that we value life. For years now the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the School Sisters of St. Francis have worked to abolish the death penalty, even as we seek justice and truth.”

Close family members and fellow sisters alike say that coming forward with a statement to oppose the death penalty was clear and certain for them. Given the strong faith-held convictions and the life-long healing ministries of Sr. Paula and Sr. Margaret, everyone immediately understood the merciful action the sisters themselves would have wanted to respond to such a tragedy.

The modern Catholic Church is against the death penalty; the last three popes have made the Church’s opposition very clear. And while more Catholics are opposed to the death penalty than ever, statistics reveal that upwards of 43% of U.S. Catholics still support capital punishment.  Given this sobering reality, the response made by the families and sisters is even more courageous an example for us and witness for our times.

The truth is the death penalty is coming to an end and the time is now to make a difference.

As we observe Respect Life Month this October, we are invited to reflect on the depth of our convictions related to dignity of all life and our pro-life stance.  At the time of this writing, a disturbing six executions are scheduled throughout October. These executions demand action.  Catholic Mobilizing Network’s Mercy in Action Project  is an easy way to direct your faithful advocacy to end the death penalty and take a stand for life.

In their living, Sr. Paula and Sr. Margaret sought to heal people on the margins of society.  In their dying these sisters left their legacy of life – lived, shared and sacrificed; a story we recognize by our faith in Jesus Christ.

 Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy is Managing Director of Catholic Mobilizing Network. She is co-author of Advocating for Justice: An Evangelical Vision for Transforming Systems and Structures.


Going Deeper

Respect Life Month is the perfect time to recommit yourself to our faith’s pro-life call.  To facilitate this, Catholic Mobilizing Network has created a Respect Life Month Toolkit to help your parish community renew its dedication to all life. This toolkit is full of resources to help you educate, advocate, and pray to end the death penalty, including a pro-life prayer service, social media ideas and bulletin articles. The toolkit also contains CMN’s new initiative, the National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty, a great way to begin your advocacy for all life, consider signing the pledge if you haven’t already.

Voices Unite to Reform the Justice System

Persistent injustice, mind-boggling greed, and downright confusing twists in the legal system can wear down the strongest people. It’s almost easier to give up and give in than try to change things. But once in a while, like-minded individuals lean on one another, share their frustrations and dreams, and commit to an action plan that lifts everyone. And the plan develops and changes as the needs and strengths of the people change.

Essentially, that’s how DART was established in Florida more than 30 years ago and then became an eight-state network. Two groups of people associated with religious congregations found common ground in their shared beliefs and commitment to justice. And the Archdiocese of Miami had its shoulder to the wheel with them from the beginning. DART’s formal name is Direct Action and Research Training Center, but like your Aunt Sis and Uncle Buddy, everyone knows them by the shorter name.

The Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment (PEACE), an affiliate of DART, builds justice ministry in Polk County, FL. Members tour a drug rehabilitation clinic that PEACE helped open.

The network helps congregations form larger organizations that reflect their common interests and values as they negotiate solutions to the root causes of problems in their community. Each of the 22 DART organizations is an independent entity, but all the groups and the more than 400 diverse congregations they comprise are united by a belief in the biblical concept of justice. They also use a “bottom-up” model to identify issues, develop leaders, and figure out realistic solutions.

The DART model is based on the Scripture account of Nehemiah, who brought people and their leaders together to devise solutions to a system that impoverished the citizenry. Nehemiah insisted that the nobles, magistrates, and people be held accountable for the promises they made.

Members of St. Ann Catholic Church were part of the 2,000 Attendees at a recent Nehemiah Assembly. At this assembly local officials from the juvenile justice system learn about the problem of youth arrests and make commitments to address them.

Recently, the DART group in Florida turned its considerable attention to a disturbing trend to criminalize young children. I was shocked when Holly Holcombe, Assistant Director, told me 12,000 children were arrested in 2014 for generally minor offenses. During a tantrum, for example, a five-year-old Special Education student knocked a tissue out of a teacher’s hand. He was charged with assault.

There is, however, an alternative: civil citations. The civil citation process, as provided under state statute, would allow non-arrest restitution and diversion for non-serious offenses. “It’s not a slap on the wrist,” Holly said.

From 2010 to 2014, 5,000 children ages 5-10 years old were arrested for offenses for which they could have received a civil citation. At first, the provision could only be used once for each youth and only 38% of those eligible received citations. Through the efforts of ten Florida-based DART organizations, 52% of eligible children were diverted to civil citations without arrest in 2016, and legislation was enacted to allow children to receive up to three citations. Nonetheless, civil citations are at the discretion of local law enforcement, which results in uneven application of the provision. Holly points out that 8,000 youth who were arrested last year were eligible for the citation, but it was not applied to their cases.

Training participants enjoy lunch between workshop sessions. Here participants learn to build their justice ministry through witnessing, evaluating, and engagement.

Clearly, there is more work to be done, and DART’s work is advancing steadily. Groups like these help people surface their deeply held concerns, engage with their feet on the ground, act on the Biblical mandate to do justice, and hold public officials accountable to work for the people they serve. This is what we are called to do.

As Pope Francis said at the 2nd World Meeting of Popular Movements, “The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change. I am with you.”

Beth Griffin is a free-lance journalist with an abiding interest in social justice.

DART in Florida receives funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

The U.S. Catholic bishops have long been vocal about restorative justice.  Read the bishops’ statement on Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice and find out what’s happening now.

CCHD: A Voice of Hope for Those on the Margins

The USCCB collection to support the Catholic Campaign for Human Development will be taken up in parishes nationwide on the weekend of November 19-20. Please give generously.working-on-the-margins

 

Pope Francis reminds us, “we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it” (2014 Message for Lent, December 26, 2013).

For the past several years I have served as chair of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) subcommittee, where I have seen how CCHD answers this call by giving voice to those on the margins of society experiencing the stark realities of poverty. I want to share with you the work of a few CCHD-supported groups across the country. These are just some of the many programs that speak to the dignity of each person, opening doors and providing hope for a more just and peaceful society.

The California Catholic Conference works with dioceses throughout California to advocate for criminal justice reform and provide spiritual outreach for communities. With a grant from CCHD, the California Catholic Conference expanded its Nightwalk programs in neighborhoods all over California. During Nightwalk—an event led by community leaders, elected officials, and clergy—community members walk the streets of violence-prone neighborhoods together in an effort to promote peace and reconciliation. These walks unify communities and give them a chance to find pathways out of violence together. Just as it is important to unify communities, it is also important to heal the wounds of individuals affected by crime and violence. The California Catholic Conference also sponsors healing circles that bring both victims of crime and families of the incarcerated together for honest dialogue and healing. By training more leaders to facilitate these meetings, the restorative power of God’s compassion and mercy is more widely spread. As Bishop Richard Garcia of the Diocese of Monterey said, “It’s really a question of reaching out to everyone with that merciful love of our God.”

 Through a CCHD national strategic grant, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has been working across the country to promote the safe, effective entry of citizens returning from incarceration into communities and into the workforce. Through St. Vincent de Paul’s partnership with local Catholic institutions and the business community, as well as through programs like job training, returning citizens are able to find jobs, stability, and a future. In an effort to break the cycle of crime and prison reentry, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul also empowers returning citizens to work for the systemic changes needed to promote criminal justice reform. With these new skills, they have been able to advocate for policies that will support fair hiring practices. Through these programs and partnerships, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is shifting systems to ensure the success of returning citizens.

Pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati's prison ministries are seen in Rome Nov. 3. Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass for those who work in prison ministry Nov. 6 in St. Peter's Basilica. (CNS photo/Junno Arocho Esteves)

Pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s prison ministries are seen in Rome Nov. 3. Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass for those who work in prison ministry Nov. 6 in St. Peter’s Basilica. (CNS photo/Junno Arocho Esteves)

Often, when juveniles are arrested their record follows them their whole lives, decreasing their chances of finding gainful employment and increasing their chances of reoffending. Together with the Catholic bishops, groups like the Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART) in Miami are working to reduce the number of juvenile arrests, giving children a real chance at success. Thanks to a strategic national grant from CCHD, DART works with school and law enforcement officials to decrease the number of school-based arrests and promote alternative, constructive interventions that give children a second chance at their future. Because of their work, school systems are now able to implement restorative justice practices affecting over 65,000 students and resulting in a decrease in suspensions and arrests.

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) works to be a voice of hope for those on the margins of society experiencing the realities of living in poverty. CCHD supports programs to heal the wounds of crime and violence, advocate for more just policies, protect God’s creation, and develop strong communities.

The Mercy of Jesus is abiding and always urgent. CCHD sustains the Holy Father’s initiative to bring the joy of the gospel to our brothers and sisters living on the margins of American life. Although we will soon conclude the Year of Mercy, a time of extraordinary grace, we know that our work has just begun.

Bishop Soto

Jaime Soto is the bishop of Sacramento and the chairman of the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development.


CCHD: Dando Voz a Los Que Viven en la Periferia de la Sociedad

El papa Francisco nos recuerda que “los cristianos estamos llamados a mirar las miserias de los hermanos, a tocarlas, a hacernos cargo de ellas y a realizar obras concretas a fin de aliviarlas” (Mensaje para la Cuaresma 2014, 26 de diciembre de 2013).

Durante los últimos años me he desempeñado como presidente del subcomité de la Campaña Católica para el Desarrollo Humano (CCHD), donde he visto cómo la CCHD responde a este llamado dando voz a los que viven en la periferia de la sociedad experimentando las crudas realidades de la pobreza. Quiero compartir con ustedes el trabajo de algunos grupos apoyados por la CCHD en todo el país. Son sólo algunos de los muchos programas que ponen de manifiesto la dignidad de cada persona, abriendo puertas y brindando esperanza para una sociedad más justa y pacífica.

La Conferencia Católica de California trabaja con diócesis de toda California para abogar por la reforma de la justicia penal y brindar acercamiento espiritual a las comunidades. Con una subvención de la CCHD, la Conferencia Católica de California expandió sus programas Nightwalk en vecindarios de toda California. Durante Nightwalk, un evento dirigido por líderes, funcionarios electos y clérigos de una comunidad, miembros de la comunidad caminan juntos por las calles de vecindarios propensos a la violencia para promover la paz y la reconciliación. Estas caminatas unifican a las comunidades y les dan la oportunidad de encontrar juntas salidas a la violencia. Así como es importante unificar las comunidades, también es importante curar las heridas de las personas afectadas por el delito y la violencia. La Conferencia Católica de California también patrocina círculos de curación que reúnen a víctimas del delito y familias de los encarcelados para sostener un proceso honesto de diálogo y curación. Al capacitar a más líderes para facilitar estas reuniones, el poder restaurador de la compasión y misericordia de Dios se difunde más ampliamente. Como dijo el obispo Richard García, de la diócesis de Monterey, “es realmente una cuestión de acercarse a todos con ese amor misericordioso de nuestro Dios”.

Mediante una subvención estratégica nacional de la CCHD, la Sociedad de San Vicente de Paúl ha estado trabajando en todo el país para promover la entrada segura y efectiva de los ciudadanos que regresan del encarcelamiento a las comunidades y a la fuerza de trabajo. Mediante la asociación de San Vicente de Paúl con instituciones católicas locales y la comunidad empresarial, así como mediante programas como capacitación laboral, los ciudadanos que regresan pueden encontrar trabajo, estabilidad y un futuro. En un esfuerzo por romper el ciclo de delito y reingreso a prisión, la Sociedad de San Vicente de Paúl también empodera a los ciudadanos que regresan para que trabajen por los cambios sistémicos necesarios para promover la reforma de la justicia penal. Con estas nuevas habilidades, han podido abogar por políticas que apoyen prácticas equitativas de contratación. A través de estos programas y asociaciones, la Sociedad de San Vicente de Paúl está cambiando sistemas para asegurar el éxito de los ciudadanos que regresan.

A menudo, cuando los menores son arrestados sus antecedentes penales los siguen toda su vida, disminuyendo sus posibilidades de encontrar empleo decente y aumentando sus posibilidades de reincidir. Junto con los obispos católicos, grupos como el Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART) de Miami están trabajando para reducir el número de detenciones de menores, dando a los niños una oportunidad real de éxito. Gracias a una subvención estratégica nacional de la CCHD, DART trabaja con funcionarios escolares y de aplicación de la ley para disminuir el número de arrestos dentro de las escuelas y promover intervenciones alternativas y constructivas que den a los niños una segunda oportunidad en su futuro. Debido a su trabajo, los sistemas escolares pueden ahora implementar prácticas de justicia restaurativa que benefician a más de 65,000 estudiantes y que disminuyen suspensiones y arrestos. La Campaña Católica para el Desarrollo Humano (CCHD) trabaja para ser una voz de esperanza para los que viven en la periferia de la sociedad experimentando las realidades de vivir en la pobreza. La CCHD apoya programas para curar las heridas del delito y la violencia, abogar por políticas más justas, proteger la creación de Dios y desarrollar comunidades fuertes.

La Misericordia de Jesús es permanente y siempre urgente. La CCHD apoya la iniciativa del Santo Padre de llevar la alegría del Evangelio a nuestros hermanos y hermanas que viven en la periferia de la vida estadounidense. Aunque pronto concluiremos el Año de la Misericordia, un tiempo de gracia extraordinaria, sabemos que nuestro trabajo recién ha comenzado.

Bishop Soto

Jaime Soto es el Obispo de Sacramento y el presidente del subcomité de la Campaña Católica para el Desarrollo Humano (CCHD).

Turning Passion into Progress

Members of the Essex Community Organization, an MCAN affiliate in the North Shore of MA, join together at Zion Baptist Church in Lynn at a meeting with the Lynn Police Department Chief, and participate in a liturgy of justice to ground their work in prayer.

Members of the Essex Community Organization, an MCAN affiliate in the North Shore of MA, join together at Zion Baptist Church in Lynn at a meeting with the Lynn Police Department Chief, and participate in a liturgy of justice to ground their work in prayer.

“They are passionate in everything they do. They are passionate in their concern for the underdog. They are passionate about leveling the playing field. They are passionate about helping people who have no voice to find a voice.”

When I heard this description of the people of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network (MCAN), it took on the cadence of a litany. It was a litany of what it takes to grow a handful of local community groups into a successful, well-respected statewide organization that has earned its place at the table. MCAN has received Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) grants from both local and the national offices throughout their existence to help translate the passion of its organizers and members into effective, lasting progress for low-income people throughout Massachusetts.

MCAN members gather with coalition partners at Raise Up Massachusetts outside the Massachusetts State House to turn in a record-high number of petition signatures to raise the minimum wage.

MCAN members gather with coalition partners at Raise Up Massachusetts outside the Massachusetts State House to turn in a record-high number of petition signatures to raise the minimum wage.

MCAN has strong roots in Catholic parishes and has been a resonant voice for immigrants and low-wage workers. Each of the member organizations has an impressive decades-long record of accomplishment with local grassroots issues. But when they came together, they created energy, momentum, and passion. With months of persistent, patient door-to-door visits and community meetings, MCAN and the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition mobilized support in the state legislature and among voters for two measures that affect more than one million low-income people: an increase in the minimum wage and employer-provided earned sick time.

In recognition of their enthusiasm and unflagging work in support of and in solidarity with oppressed people, MCAN was presented the Sr. Margaret Cafferty Development of People Award. I assure you we were delighted to recognize a longtime funded group that is passionate about holding elected officials accountable and creating solutions to the underlying causes of poverty.

MCAN engages younger generations in the importance of community organizing and voting. These four children of leaders in Brockton helped canvass for the 2014 Earned Sick Time Ballot Initiative in Massachusetts.

MCAN engages younger generations in the importance of community organizing and voting. These four children of leaders in Brockton helped canvass for the 2014 Earned Sick Time Ballot Initiative in Massachusetts.

MCAN is not resting on its laurels. It continues its work to reform the justice system and is already gearing up to support a 2018 constitutional initiative that will fund education and transportation with a new tax on people who make more than $1 million a year.

“They are passionate about everything they do.” What a terrific accolade!

Throughout the long, gray winter and this joyful Easter season, I thought about the myriad people who step out of their natural comfort zones to work for justice. I have been blessed to meet many people who work for CCHD-funded organizations and consistently put their families and others before themselves as they strive to help the entire community move beyond poverty. Thank you to all of the supporters of CCHD who help us offer training, support, and encouragement to groups like MCAN. I am grateful.

 

Ralph McCloud, CCHD

Ralph McCloud serves as the director of the USCCB Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Learn more about the work of CCHD and follow on Twitter @EndPovertyUSA.


Learn more about MCAN’s organizing work and the Sr. Margaret Cafferty Development of People’s Award in the latest edition of the CCHD quarterly newsletter Helping People Help Themselves.

See other CCHD groups’ Stories of Hope on PovertyUSA.

America’s Prison System is a World of Pain and Despair

 The following article was originally published by the Sun Sentinel on August 19, 2015.

Next month, when Pope Francis visits the United States, one stop on his itinerary will be a prison outside of Philadelphia. He has visited prisons in Italy and other countriesheadshot of Archbishop Thoma Wenski to remind us of the dignity of even those convicted of crime. Pope Francis has said, “God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person’s life.”

While conditions in U.S. prisons might be a bit more humane than those in the notorious Palmasola prison he visited in Bolivia last month, our criminal justice system is nevertheless broken, and it needlessly continues to break up families and communities throughout our nation.

As a nation we incarcerate more of our population than any other Western country, more than even the Soviet Union did. Today, the United States has more than 2.2 million people in prison on any given day — and in the course of a year some 13.5 million passed through our correctional institutions.

In Florida, our state prisons, which house some 100,000 people, have been tainted by scandals in recent years — with various allegations of prisoner abuse and even murder by guards still being investigated.

How did this come about? There are lots of reasons, of course. The crisis in our families — the breakup and dissolution of American families, especially among the poor — certainly left many young people rudderless. Many did not only lose their way; they never learned the way.

Access to better legal counsel and resources often allow the rich and better-educated offenders to defer or avoid prison. The incarcerated tend to be those less educated, the mentally ill, drug addicts or the poor. And because of ill-considered tougher sentencing laws and tougher parole laws that seek more to punish than to rehabilitate, our prison populations continue to grow. “Three strikes” laws often end up sentencing minor criminals to a lifetime of jail for what are relatively petty third offenses.

Justice is supposedly blind — but given the inequities of the criminal justice system today, one could rightly say that justice is crippled.

Our Judeo-Christian tradition has always called for the humane treatment of prisoners and has emphasized that imprisonment should lead to the rehabilitation of the prisoner so that he can return to society and resume his place as a productive citizen. The reality of prisons today is far from this ideal.

While society needs to be protected from the worst among us, there is little effort to rehabilitate the nonviolent and the misguided. And while our Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, what we see happening in our prisons is cruel and inhuman. The spread of infectious diseases in prisons, including AIDS, and the sexual violence that occurs within prison walls point out just how inhuman conditions are in our nation’s prison system today.

All this reflects the sad reality of the incarcerated today, whether they are in a small county jail or a large federal prison. Their world is one of pain and despair. Because nobody wants to live next door to a correctional institution, they are usually built in isolated rural areas — and so prisoners end up “warehoused” far from their families — and so, “out of sight, out of mind,” the rest of society allows itself to simply ignore them.

Violence begets violence: Man’s inhumanity to man consists not only of crime itself but also how we as a society treat the wrongdoer. The inmate is our brother or sister in Christ, a child of God who, in spite of whatever crime he or she might have committed, does not forfeit his or her dignity as a child of God.

As a church we must proclaim and promote the respect of each person’s dignity — this must include the unborn, the handicapped, the migrant, the elderly … and it cannot fail to include the prisoner as well.

Here in the Archdiocese of Miami, many of our priests, deacons and faithful minister to the incarcerated. Their ministry is truly a work of mercy. They take to heart Jesus’ words in his parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25): “I was in prison and you visited me.”

After all, Jesus himself was imprisoned and suffered crucifixion, the means of capital punishment of his time. And from the cross, he beatified a common criminal whom history now knows as the “Good Thief” because he “stole” heaven — getting there even before the sinless Virgin Mary.

Pope Francis will remind us in his visit to a U.S. prison this September, “God is in everyone’s life.”

Most Reverend Thomas G. Wenski is Archbishop of Miami and is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Racism, Inequality and the Right to Vote

Adkins-Jason-head-shot-605x818

Jason Adkins

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, which is one of the most important and effective pieces of civil rights legislation enacted in this country’s history, more work needs to be done to ensure that racism and other inequities do not inhibit anyone from fully participating in community life.

For example, racial inequities in our nation’s criminal justice system impact voter participation.   Many states disenfranchise persons with a felony conviction who have completed their time of incarceration but have not completed their full sentence, including periods of supervised release.  In other words, even those who have left jail or prison and are living and working in the community and paying taxes cannot vote if they have not finished their period of probation or parole.

Disenfranchising felony offenders disproportionately impacts minorities.  In Minnesota, for example, approximately 7.4 percent of African-American and 5.9 percent of American- Indian Minnesotans are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, as opposed to only 1.1 percent of white Minnesotans.

Catholic social teaching encourages greater attention to disparities that impact voting participation.  The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that “participation in community life is not only one of the greatest aspirations of the citizen, called to exercise freely and responsibly his civic role with and for others, but is also one of the pillars of all democratic orders and one of the major guarantees of the permanence of democratic life.” (no. 190.)

Our justice system has changed

Historically, a felony conviction resulted in what is called “civil death”—a concept dating back to ancient Roman jurisprudence.  By committing a crime, one had offended the peace of the community and, therefore, rightfully lost the privileges of participating in civil society.  Yet, when these rules barring the restoration of civil rights until the full sentence is completed were instituted, the criminal justice system looked a lot different than it does today.

In 1858, when Minnesota became a state, there were 75 felony crimes enumerated in statute.  Today, there are 368 (and the list continues to grow).  Only 30 people were in prison in 1858, and there was no probation system.  Today, there are approximately 16,000 people incarcerated in Minnesota, and 75 percent of felony convictions result in probation.  47,000 Minnesotans are on some form of supervised release and unable to vote.

Yet, there is no evidence that losing the right to vote deters crime.  It is merely punishment for punishment’s sake.  Fortunately, a rethinking of the punitive criminal justice policies of the past is occurring across the ideological spectrum.  In Minnesota, legislation that would restore the vote to those on supervised release has obtained broad bi-partisan support and hopefully will be signed into law soon.

Responsibility, rehabilitation, and restoration

Solidarity, a foundational principle of Catholic Social Teaching, is defined as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (Solicitudo rei Socialis, no. 38).  In their document, “Restoration, Rehabilitation, and Responsibility” (2000), the U.S. Catholic bishops declared that in matters of criminal justice, “solidarity calls us to insist on responsibility and seek alternatives that do not simply punish, but rehabilitate, heal, and restore.”

The bishops encouraged lawmakers to redirect the vast amount of public resources away from building more prisons and toward better and more effective programs aimed at crime prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration.

In fact, the premise of supervised release programs is that an offender and society are better off by re-integrating people back into our communities.  If offenders continue to be reminded, however, by the collateral consequences of a conviction that they are not like everyone else, how can we, as a society, have expectations that they will act as responsibly as everyone else?

Restoring the vote to those who are out of prison and living and working in our communities under supervised release can promote successful reintegration into the community, as voting can be a powerful, concrete, and symbolic way to contribute to one’s community and to feel invested and empowered to play a positive role. In other words, it serves the common good. Fuller integration of people into their community and involvement in civic life logically results in stronger ties and feelings of empowerment, which can help to lessen feelings of disconnection and frustration that can contribute to future crime.

The Church should continue to be at the forefront of providing a policy framework that cuts through the false “either/or” rhetoric of criminal justice debates.  It should emphasize the need to integrate the policy goals of restoration, rehabilitation, and responsibility—not just retribution—and highlight the themes of justice and mercy for the disenfranchised and others on the margins of society.

Jason Adkins is executive director and general counsel of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

In the Tsarnaev Case, Will Justice be Served?

Rachel Malinowski

Rachel Malinowski

Justice.

That was the single word at the top of my newsfeed when I opened Facebook after the thirty-count conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. As I continued to scroll, I saw similar cheers for justice and chants of “Boston Strong”.

I must admit that following Tsarnaev’s conviction, I felt a sense that justice had been served. As a native Bostonian, it had been painful to see my city and my neighbors under attack in 2013. I remember frantically texting my mom and being glued to the television during the chase in Watertown. Even from my current home in Connecticut, I felt angry and upset; I cannot fathom the pain, fear and anger that runners, spectators and victims felt when our city was attacked. In light of this, the conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev brought some sense of justice to this tragedy.

But Tsarnaev’s conviction was somewhat expected and thus the real focal point of this case will come with the sentencing phase, which just began. So this begs the question, will justice ultimately be served in the penalty phase of this case?

In the Catholic worldview, justice is not a death sentence for Tsarnaev. Rather, for there to be justice, Tsarnaev’s life should be spared, a position that is rooted in the belief that the application of capital punishment today, unnecessarily violates the inherent dignity of human life. When we as Catholics talk about the inherent dignity of life, we are referring to the sacredness of life that springs from the fact that each and every human has been made in the image and likeness of God; nothing—not even committing heinous crimes—can take this dignity away from a person. Thus, taking a brother or sister’s life as a penalty for a crime violates the image of God among us and as such, is unjust.

But it is not only the dignity of the individual sentenced to death that is violated when the death penalty is utilized; the dignity of the entire society is violated. In a 2005 statement on the death penalty, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed the hope that, “our nation will no longer try to teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill.” More important than the logical flaw with the application of the death penalty, is the fact that the death penalty perpetuates a vicious cycle of violence and death that threatens all human life. By violating the dignity of our brothers and sisters, we necessarily violate our own.

I do not mean to make an anti-death penalty stance sound easy. In fact, it would be much easier to refuse to see the dignity of our enemies and not to worry about the culture of death that we are creating. It is imperative, though, that we resist this culture of violence and death. Violent penalties only breed more violence; they proclaim a disregard for life and express that violence is an acceptable vehicle for communicating ideals. Justice can only be realized when we boldly assert the sanctity of life in the face of horrific destruction.

I invite you to join me in praying that justice will be served and the culture of death and violence will be resisted.

Rachel Malinowski is a third-year Master of Divinity candidate at Yale Divinity School. She received her undergraduate degree at Fordham University. Rachel is an alumna of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development intern program.