Justice for the One and For the Many – A Reflection on the Criminal Justice System and the Teaching of the Catechism

In previous weeks we have discussed the death penalty on this blog and, as you know I am against it and think that we, as Catholics, should be with our Pope and the World’s Bishops who have asked us to stand against it. In this post however, I would like to explore another side of the question of crime and punishment and ask you if you think we have the balance right. For if it be true that we should stand against Capital Punishment (as I think we should), we also need to look closely at the protection of society, and also those within prison systems,  from often dangerous criminals.

To begin the discussion I would like to begin with some personal background.

From 2000-2007, I was pastor in a very rough part of town here in DC. We just called it the “hood,” though the map called us Congress Heights, and Highlands South.  Every week there were shootings. At least once a month, a murder took place on our streets. Two of the murders took place right on Church grounds, one during the school day when our school was in session.

In every case, the perpetrators of these murders had rap sheets a mile long: armed robbery, car theft, selling and possession, attempted murder, actual murder. But they walked our streets. Arrested on very serious charges, they were out in days. When trial finally came, sometimes years later, they had already offended in other ways. When sentence was passed, they served only tiny portions of their sentence and were back out. Nothing, it seemed, would cause a re-evaluation of this revolving door “justice.” And in the hood we lived with fear we shouldn’t have had. We experienced crime we shouldn’t have.

Somewhere it seems that, in the criminal justice system we have lost balance. Hence, I want to raise with you a consideration of justice and well ordered love.

In considering questions of justice, it has been most common in the past 40 years to have the emphasis fall on the rights and needs of the individual prisoner. There is clearly a place for such considerations. Justice cannot always be merely what the majority thinks. But neither can the common good be wholly set aside. This is especially true in matters of public safety. Too often today, very dangerous people are walking our streets. This is neither just nor is it sensible. We may all want to show some leniency from time to time. Severe justice for first time offenders may not always be warranted. But there comes a time when greater charity and justice has to be shown to the public and the common good must outweigh any personal charity we may wish to extend.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say:

Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. ….The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense.

Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party. (CCC # 2265-2266)

It is therefore clear that we do not detain and/or punish to exact revenge. Rather we do so for a twofold purpose: to protect the common good by ending the disorder caused by wrongdoers (what the Catechism calls “redressing” i.e. remedying). And, secondly, for the medicinal purpose of correcting the guilty party insofar as possible.

And herein lies the question: Does the criminal justice system in most of America today keep a proper balance between protecting the common good and the needs and rights of the guilty party? In terms of violent felons, by own experience says, “No.”

Too often the common good is neglected, even wholly set aside in decisions related to criminal justice. Public authority must discover anew its grave duty to the common good and particularly to the lives of others. Good intentions are not enough. Real people get harmed and killed when we get the balance wrong. Ask the families in my old neighborhood who suffered the loss of family and friends at the hands of repeat felons with a track record a mile long.  Ask those who lived in great fear.

The current record of our Criminal Justice System is that we simply do not seem to have the will to keep even very dangerous criminals locked up. They walk away from lengthy sentences after very short times. They usually offend again and we still let them go early from subsequent sentences.

In the popular mind social justice is usually equated with the rights of prisoners. But true social justice cannot forget the common good and must weigh it in the balance with prisoners’ rights.

The common good is not some abstraction. It is about real people. We cannot simply toss the rights of prisoners and accused to the winds. But neither can we simply disregard the common good.  True justice is about balance. Individual rights? Yes. The Common Good? Yes again.

* Here is a tribute to fallen police officers who face many dangers for us every day:


16 Replies to “Justice for the One and For the Many – A Reflection on the Criminal Justice System and the Teaching of the Catechism”

  1. One of the biggest problems is that there does not seem to be any proportionality between the gravity of the offense and the seriousness of the sentence. The only way to fix that would be through a comprehensive examination and reform of the criminal justice system, and no one wants to do that kind of work.

  2. Thank you for this explanation. I agree with it. Regarding the death penalty, I realize that as a Catholic one should stand with church teaching. How does the church explain extending the life of someone like a serial killer who has left a trail of bodies and death, and who would continue to do so if released (by some of their own admissions) after being apprehended? Why should that person’s life be maintained at public expense? I am still a relatively new Catholic and I wrestle with this question. Thanks in advance for your response.

  3. So many variables in the equation. Understandably all of those variables need to be carefully scrutinized. If as Catholics, we recognize God as the Author of Life, our energy and resources need to lead towards forgiveness and the healing of all parties involved. Without proper reformation the cycle is inclined to repeat. Standards need to be in place and adhered to not worked around or loop holes created to allow offenders an opportunity to repeat deadly behavior.

    Although in a world where we have legalized the killing of innocent, defenseless, unborn babies, should we be surprised or honestly question rights and equality?

  4. Another aspect of the same problem you discuss here is how mentally ill criminals are handled. Our criminal justice system releases them back into the community all too often because they cannot be convicted. They might be sent to a mental hospital to be stabilized on psychiatric medications, but once these mentally ill people are discharged from the hospital, they often quit taking their medications and become a threat once again. I know this is a reaction to the way the “insane” were once locked up and inhumanely treated as late as 50 years ago. I wait anxiously for the day the pendulum begins to swing back…

  5. I wanted to see what others said before responding, but it is clear that neither the Monsignor nor the commenters are familiar with the Virginia criminal justice system. They don’t mess around over on this side of the river. If anything, they are too harsh, especially with respect to ex-offenders trying to get re-established in society.

      1. In Virginia, convicted offenders do not “walk away from lengthy sentences after very short times.” In Virginia, they have more than enough will to lock people up for long periods of time (as well as keeping mentally ill offenders locked up in the hospital long after they have been restored to sanity and competency).

        In fact, in Virginia, the only “revolving door ‘justice’” is from offenders doing their time, paying their debt to society, and society still brands them, like Cain, as existentially “criminal.” It is the public that revolves right back to forever treating them as criminal, all while demanding that they get jobs and be productive members of society. But that is not justice. Justice is when the scales are again balanced, when things are again restored, when defendants have done their time, then there is reconciliation, there is forgiveness.

        It used to be that once an offender had paid his debt to society, that he could then move on, start a new life, finish his education, get a job, pay taxes, etc. No more. Now with computer records, a person’s criminal history follows him around FOREVER. And who wants to hire the guy who shoplifted ten years ago, who wants to hire the guy who snorted some cocaine five years ago? Today, once you have a felony conviction, your life is over. Jobs, hard enough to get now as it is, are near impossible to get. Except for low-paying day labor jobs. So offenders are never able to crawl out of the gutter. It is not enough to say that he shouldn’t have committed the felony in the first place and it serves him right. That’s not justice, and it isn’t Christianity either.

        But maybe I’m biased, what with my 15 years experience as a criminal defense attorney in Virginia.

        1. Regarding Bender’s observations, I wonder if part of the problem is that, in losing our sense of sin, our society has instead developed a tendency to view criminals as either (a) psychologically/sociologically handicapped (and therefore to be excused) or (b) monsters (and therefore to be permanently marginalized).

  6. When ifs and buts are candy and nuts we’ll all have a merry christmas. I don’t feel the big picture will be resolved by your point. It’s just an opinion expressing one reasonable point of view that resolves nothing. We still are faced with the same challenges. To ere is human, to forgive devine. Moral people don’t want to kill other people. War is hell and there is a societal war going on when a muslim soldier with terrorist ties can murder scores of people at Fort Hood and the government calls it a work place crime. So you expect for the judicial system to get it right? You can’t sell spritually moral ideas to a system that is doing it’s best to separate you from their secular utopian ideas. Let’s just blame it on class warfare. The haves and the have nots. What we need is a redistribution justice. The judicial system will decide who gets to walk.

  7. Unfortunately, I have become too familiar with the revolving door method of criminal justice through my stepson. He is on his way back to jail/prison (the case is working its way through the process). He has a very long record, going back some 20 years. His mother says the last time he was free on his birthday was in his early teens. Over the seven years I have known him, he has never been free on Christmas, Thanksgiving or Easter to spend time with family. He missed our wedding, his sister’s wedding, his grandmother’s funeral, births of two nephews, sister’s college graduation, cousin’s wedding, cousin’s high school graduation, too many birthday parties and family picnics to count. He was recently released after serving four years on charges of home invasion, grand theft auto and assualt and battery. He reoffended 28 days after release, stealing his mother’s and my laptops. Poor decisions, abetted by drug abuse, are the root of his crimes. He fails to take responsibility for his actions, but uses environment, lack of coping skills, bad friends, etc. as excuses. The system fails him and any community he ends up living in. We must end the revolving door, or the criminals will destroy our communities. Passing more laws will not help — criminals do not follow them any way. Making them responsible and forcing them to accept consequences can help, but we must be willing to demand accountability from the criminal justice system. Criminals do not belong in our communities; they belong behind bars!

  8. We have more people in prison, numerically and proportionally, than any other country on earth. Does that mean we have more offenders? A large percentage of those incarcerated were imprisoned for nonviolent crimes for which a harmed victim may have been only the person incarcerated. And I wonder about the degree of rehabilitation attempted while in prison. Many prisons are run by private commercial enterprises, who profit when numbers of incarcerations are increased and maintained at high levels. I see your point, from the microcosm you inhabit. But I believe a lot of our brothers and sisters have been unduly harmed by the justice system you indicate is too lenient. And that harm is not offset by general benefit to us on the outside. Please tell us what Jesus has to say about this issue.

  9. At the National Constitution center in Philadelphia they had a “Free Mumia” rally to free the guy who killed a cop decades ago…

  10. I see no way that this article can be read other than supporting capital punishment, something which I applaud. Ven. Pius XII was in favour of it, even saying that murders had forfeited their right to life. As Cardinal Ratzinger noted, the faithful are free to disagree with the personal opinion of Bl. John Paul II on this matter, and I tend to agree with Pius XII.

  11. we lock up sexual predators and fathers delinquent with support payments. I would prefer that our tax dollars were used to keep dangerous offenders locked up, programs designed to make offenders who do not present a danger to the public work to pay off their debt to society, and subsidize all of it by the savings realized by no longer spending money trying to kill capital offenders. And by making prisoners farm and work to contribute to their incarciration. We dont have to pay industry to supply our prisons with food and other goods. Worry less about the rights of prisoners than the rights of the citizens and law officers while still respecting the inherent dignity of all human life and gods decree not to take a life.

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