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: