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?
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.
Karen Clifton is executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network.
[ii] Sean McElwee. “America’s Awful, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Prison System.” The Huffington Post. July 1, 2013.
[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.