Our Faith Calls Us to Restore Justice


Karen Clifton, Catholic Mobilizing Network

In Pope Francis’ call to abolish the death penalty in all forms, he tells us that the American criminal justice system is in need of a new and restorative approach. The United States incarcerates an appalling number of its citizens. While our country represents 5% of the world’s population, we are home to 25% of the global prison population and we imprison more citizens per capita than almost any other country. [i] [ii]

When we sentence men, women and children to be incarcerated, we send them to a prison system in which they are at an exponentially greater risk of becoming victims of violence and suicide. On any given day in the United States, an estimated 600 people are raped in prison and roughly 80,000 incarcerated adults and youth are held in conditions of solitary confinement, a practice considered by many as a form of torture.[iii] [iv] These statistics are shocking but none of these numbers conveys the ripple effect this system has in our society in creating broken individuals, families, neighborhoods and communities.

Our corrections system costs us tens of billions of dollars a year but is neither effective in rehabilitating offenders, nor in deterring crime.[v] Haunted by institutionalized racism and the criminalization of mental illness, prison dehumanizes and hardens its residents rather than “correcting” them. Over half of all inmates are re-arrested within three years of their release. [vi] We have created a system that pushes inmates into gangs and substance abuse to cope with prison life and the dead-end opportunities they face upon release.

How can we provide these persons the opportunity to experience the unconditional love of God? How can we meet their needs by counseling their broken spirits and addressing their addictions and mental illness?

Shujaa Graham spent 4 years on California's death row for a crime he did not commit. He was raised on a plantation in the segregated South in the 1950s. (Photo by Scott Langley)

Shujaa Graham spent 4 years on California’s death row for a crime he did not commit. He was raised on a plantation in the segregated South in the 1950s. (Photo by Scott Langley)

Retribution focuses on punishing the offender. Restorative justice, by contrast, focuses on the needs of victims, their communities, and the offender and seeks to repair broken relationships and heal harm. Restorative justice is at the core of the Gospel. It witnesses to the dignity of all human life, guilty and innocent.

To offer the convicted person a path to restoration is not to be soft on crime. It calls the convicted person to do the hard work of justice, shoulder responsibility and seek forgiveness, repair broken relationships with victims and communities, and address the issues that led them to their actions.

In the words of Fr. David Kelly of the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, we cannot write off offenders as worthless, banish them and expect a different result. Rather, we need to ensure that offenders are held accountable and remain part of the community while they serve their sentence.[vii] Restorative justice programs prove that broken people can be rehabilitated through encounter and prayer. The results of restorative justice pilot programs in the US are promising. Bridges to Life, a restorative justice program that began in Texas, reports recidivism rates lower than half of the national average.[viii]

As Pope Francis says, our media and political system promote “violence and revenge, public and private, not only against those responsible for crimes, but also against those under suspicion.” Violence as a quick solution to our problems has become culturally ingrained and changing this is hard work. As Catholics, we must confront this culture of violence to create a new generation of hope and justice. It will take something as radical as the Gospel message of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.

(Photo by Scott Langley.)

(Photo by Scott Langley)

Karen Clifton is executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network.

[i] View comparative data about worldwide prison populations from The International Centre for Prison Studies here.

[ii] Sean McElwee. “America’s Awful, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Prison System.” The Huffington Post. July 1, 2013.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] National Religious Campaign Against Torture “Ending Torture in US Prisons

[v] For more information about total state correctional expenditures (not including federal expenditures) see the Bureau of justice Statistics report “State Corrections Expenditures, FY 1982-2010.” April 30, 2014.

[vi] According a report made available by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, among state prisoners released in 30 states in 2005, 67.8% of prisoners were re-arrested within 3 years. Alexia Cooper, Matthew Durose and Howard Synder. “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010.” April 22, 2014.

[vii] See the transcript of the conference “Restore Justice!” held in Washington DC on November 21, 2014.

[viii] GuideStar Exchange Charting Impact Report. “Bridges to Life.” April 24, 2014. Page 3.

Do We Desire Mercy or Sacrifice?

Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ (Mt. 9:13)

In the Gospels, the Pharisees challenge the disciples by asking them why Jesus keeps company with sinners. Jesus reminds them that it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. He tells the Pharisees, “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mt 9:13).The Pharisees are quick to judge and condemn. But Jesus teaches them another way, the way of mercy.

In reflecting on our nation’s prisons and jails, the continuing pervasiveness of the death penalty, the many people, especially minorities, sentenced to years in prison for non-violent crimes, as well as recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, we are compelled to ask: Do we, as a nation, desire mercy or sacrifice?

The United States imprisons more people per capita than any other nation in the world. In the recent study, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, researchers concluded that in the last 40 years, the rise of incarceration in the United States has been “historically unprecedented and internationally unique.”

A review of the data paints a startlingly dark picture, one that stresses punishment rather than mercy and healing. In 1973, federal and state prisons held close to 200,000 adults. As of today there are approximately 2.2 million people in America’s prisons and jails. Although the U.S. makes up just 5 percent of the world’s population, we have nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Incarceration costs for federal, state and local governments have been astounding. At approximately $80 billion annually, only state level Medicaid spending has increased faster in the last two decades. More importantly, there has been tremendous cost in human life, and in broken communities and families.

Minorities have been disproportionately impacted by our nation’s sentencing policies. Today, minorities make up 60 percent of the U.S. prison population. Hispanics are twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites and, shockingly, one in three black males can expect to go to prison at some point in his lifetime.

Our Catholic moral tradition calls us to build a culture of healing, restoration and mercy rather than retribution. Centuries ago, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that punishment for its own sake can never be justified. In the Summa Theologica he wrote, “Penalties are not sought for their own sake, because this is not the era of retribution; rather, they are meant to be corrective by being conducive either to the reform of the sinner or the good of society…”

The U.S. bishops in their 2000 pastoral statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, wrote, “We are all sinners, and our response to sin and failure should not be abandonment and despair, but rather justice, contrition, reparation, and a return or re-integration of all into the community.”

One way the Church is responding is by supporting restorative and criminal justice reform efforts in national policy. For example, the USCCB supports the Second Chance Act (S. 1690/H.R. 3465), which authorizes funding for important reentry programs that assist people leaving incarceration. Programs focusing on housing, substance abuse and mental health treatment, job training, etc., help people transition back into the community. Another piece of legislation the USCCB supports, the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410/H.R. 3382), will help begin reform of our nation’s harsh mandatory minimum sentencing policies. This legislation will give judges options to reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenses which excessively impact minorities.

While punishment and correction of those who have harmed others and society can be just, punishments must fit the crime. Our focus should not be on retribution or punishment for punishment’s sake, but to lift up human dignity, healing and restoration for both victims of crime and those who commit crime.

Pope Francis reminds us that the “Lord never tires of forgiving us, never.” Today, we must ask ourselves, do we desire mercy or sacrifice?Granado headshot BW

Anthony J. Granado is a policy advisor at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Learn about the USCCB’s advocacy for criminal and restorative justice and follow @AnthonyJGranado on twitter.

Check out organizations supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development working on civil rights.