Bringing Catholicism to Crime and Punishment

As violent crime continues to surge in U.S. cities, experts discuss how to best address this pressing issue.

Activists calling for jail and prison reforms rally outside of Brooklyn Criminal Court  on Dec. 10 in New York City.
Activists calling for jail and prison reforms rally outside of Brooklyn Criminal Court on Dec. 10 in New York City. (photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

The United States incarcerates about 2 million people. That’s the most in the world — and at the highest rate per capita.

Is that the right amount? Too many? Too few?

With violent crime surging in major American cities — and President Joe Biden specifically rejecting the progressive demand to “defund the police” in his March 1 State of the Union address — the Register asked several experts on the U.S. criminal-justice system those questions and others, keeping in mind Catholic principles of justice, order, dignity and salvation of souls.

Some see the current system as too harsh, making things harder on troubled souls who are made worse and not better by their encounters with the system, and coarsening the society the system is meant to protect. Others see recent attempts to decrease the number of crimes being prosecuted and to circumscribe the activities of police as undermining public safety and justice and, in the process, hurting innocent people who are most vulnerable.

The Catholic Church provides a moral framework for a criminal-justice system in broad strokes.

“Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church states (2265). It adds that “… punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: As far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.”

But the Church leaves the details to civil authorities.


More Discretion?

Cecelia Klingele, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, sees ending minimum sentences and allowing more discretion to judges and other officials in the criminal-justice system as a major step forward.

Klingele thinks the current system is too mechanical and doesn’t allow enough judgment calls. She says that while people who commit crimes need to be held accountable, sentences ought to be proportional to the culpability, the seriousness, and the circumstances of the offense.

“And there has to be a pathway to redemption,” Klingele said. “In the United States, what we have is a gigantic system that tends to process people. They don’t feel seen by our system. They are moved along and treated like widgets. They’re processed and managed. They’re certainly not treated with love. And that is a problem for the legitimacy of the state.”

Klingele has interviewed people who have spent time in custody and probation officers in several states for formal academic studies. She also teaches continuing legal education to judges.

Klingele is a member of the executive board of the Catholic Criminal Justice Reform Network, which seeks “the transformation of our punitive and harsh criminal-justice system through dialogue and change of perspective,” among other things. It’s an initiative of the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago.


Fewer Prisons?

Klingele wants to see far fewer people incarcerated. As for the existing prisons, she finds them troubling.

“I think that they should be completely rehabilitated. I think the conditions in which we confine people are inhumane and are a scandal. They should be a scandal to people of faith,” Klingele said. “People are sent to jail as punishment, not for punishment. And yet the places we send them are unsanitary, often unsafe and almost all of the time hopeless. They do not heal broken human spirits. They instead increase trauma and pain of the people who are there. And that’s trauma and pain that they’re going to bring to the community.”

Kathryn Getek Soltis, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Villanova University, wants to see gradual abolition of prisons, starting with sending fewer people to them and a moratorium on building new ones. She would like to see community partnerships built on principles of restorative justice, which is designed to heal the harm done through crime.

Getek Soltis has spent years volunteering in Catholic chaplain ministry in prisons, including in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. She wants more emphasis on treating inmates with dignity and charity, as opposed to simply warehousing people (or worse) to punish them.

“For the vast majority of people that I have encountered in the prison system, the social conditions in which they were existing communicated a message that they were not a priority,” Soltis said.


More Prisons?

Rafael Mangual, a lawyer and an expert on crime, also sees problems with prisons, but he thinks the right approach is to build more of them to lessen overcrowding. Lowering the prison population shouldn’t be the goal, given the amount of crime — particularly violent crime — in the country, he says.

Mangual, who does not identify as religious, is a senior fellow and head of research for the Policing and Public Safety Initiative at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in New York City. He cites stark statistics, particularly concerning the likelihood that a convicted criminal will commit crimes again after being released.

Recidivism rates in the United States are high. Estimates vary, but one U.S. Department of Justice study found that more than 70% of those released from prison were arrested again within a five-year period. Another study put the state-prison recidivism rate at 83%.

Those crimes tend to hurt poor people from racial minorities at a disproportionately high rate. One example: About 91% of homicide victims in New York City in 2021 were Black or Latino, according to the New York Police Department. (The breakdown was 67% Black, 23.7% Latino.) Homicide suspects mirrored those percentages: 63.9% Black, 28.5% Latino, or about 92% in total.

Mangual points to a study described in 2012 in the Journal of Law and Economics that found that between 1991 and 2004, each prison year for a convict in state prison accounted on average for a reduction of eight so-called “index crimes” (defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as homicide, rape, robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, larceny over $50, motor vehicle theft and arson).

“So for every year that any prisoner is incarcerated, we’re avoiding eight of these felonies, just because they’re not out on the street to commit them,” Mangual said.

Putting people in prison is actually humane, Mangual said, because it helps innocent people who are the most affected by crime.

A study released by the Manhattan Institute in August 2021 found that in New York City about 5% of the streets produce 50% of the crime in the city; for violent crime, about 4% of streets during a three-year period produced about 50% of it. Similar findings in other cities show what one study calls “micro-geographic hot spots” for crime.

“As bad as crime has gotten in some areas, the United States does not have a crime problem. Crime is hyper-concentrated, both geographically and demographically in this country,” Mangual said.

Klingele acknowledges that poor people and racial minorities are typical victims of crime. But putting away their crime-committing neighbors isn’t the right way to address the problem, she says. Instead, a civil society should be trying to fix economic problems and others.

“It is the poor and marginalized and people of color who are bearing the brunt of violent crime. When we see that violence, it is a sign of deprivation and despair. And as people of faith, our response to deprivation and despair should not primarily or first be, ‘Let me incarcerate people in your community.’ We should be curious about the causes of that deprivation and despair,” Klingele said.


Prosecute or Not Prosecute?

A hot-button dispute in criminal justice is whether to prosecute certain misdemeanor offenses.

In 2018, for instance, the incoming district attorney for Suffolk County in Massachusetts (which includes Boston) released a list of 15 crimes she wanted her office not to prosecute as standalone charges unless first obtaining special permission to do so. They included trespassing, shoplifting, larceny under $250, receiving stolen property, drug possession with intent to distribute, and resisting arrest.

Rachael Rollins (now U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, selected by President Biden) argued that such crimes are often driven by poverty and mental illness and that the community at large doesn’t need prosecution as protection from those crimes. She also contended that people who commit those crimes would be better off without entering the criminal-justice system and getting a criminal record that might prevent them from getting a job in the future.

Supporters say that recent data suggests not prosecuting violent crimes doesn’t increase crime overall.

But some say a comparable approach in certain places is leading to a spike in crime.

Charles Stimson, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said some offenders benefit from the criminal-justice system, particularly from diversion programs meant to address root problems instead of sending offenders to jail. He fondly recalls a diversion program called “Teen Court” when he was a prosecutor in San Diego. For certain teenage offenders who admitted to a property crime, restitution would be determined by a jury of teenagers. The offender had incentive to do what they said because only then would he be able to get his criminal record expunged.

Ignoring laws spelling out consequences for misdemeanors is a bad approach, he says.

“As a practicing Catholic, I think it’s evil. And the reason I think it’s evil is the people harmed the most by these policies are minorities — people without a voice in the inner city. And they’re the people rogue prosecutors pretend to care the most about,” Stimson said.

He cited drug court, veterans court and family court as examples of alternatives to jail that some offenders are missing out on.

“Each of these is a vehicle with the idea that if you do these things successfully that you will rehabilitate yourself. … ­That is a hopeful approach,” Stimson said. “There are a lot of people in the criminal-justice system who need these services, who need that approach. But when you’re a rogue prosecutor, when you don’t even prosecute misdemeanors … then you’re not even diverting people into these programs. You’re just saying, ‘You can do these crimes whenever you want. I don’t believe you need to get better.’ 

“I think it’s cruel. I think it’s un-Christian, and I don’t believe it believes in the power of redemption,” he added. “I’m offended as a Catholic and as a Christian that they ignore and give the back hand to the power of rehabilitation.”


Picking Up the Pieces

Rehabilitating is famously difficult. Many people who commit crimes and go to prison have deep-seated problems. A common phrase in the criminal-justice system — used by several people interviewed for this story — is “Hurt people hurt people.”

Behavioral problems among inmates in prison can seem overwhelming, since many stem from abuse, neglect, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, and mental illness.

But many inmates can still be reached, says Father Jay DeFalco, a prison chaplain in Washington state at both a juvenile-detention facility and a state prison.

Father DeFalco, who started as a prison chaplain about 15 years ago, says Mass and hears confessions in prisons. Before coronavirus hit, he oversaw about 40 lay volunteers who led Bible studies and prayer services with inmates, as well as simply engaging them in conversation. Lay involvement with prisons hasn’t picked up since the virus hit, but he hopes that with declining cases of the virus that laypeople will start coming into prisons again to volunteer.

“I really encourage any Catholic who wants to make a difference in people’s lives to try to help,” Father DeFalco said. “Because, in the end, what really makes a difference for someone incarcerated is to feel that someone cares for them, because they’ve never experienced that.”

Klingele, who has interviewed criminal offenders, says many already see themselves as worthless. The aim of both the criminal-justice system and individual Christians should be to treat them as human beings with dignity, she says.

“There aren’t criminals and the rest of us,” Klingele said. “There are sinners, and that’s all of us.”