The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published a statement on Prison Ministry entitled Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice in November 2000. It continues to guide the work being done today.
The fundamental starting point for all of Catholic social teaching is the defense of human life and dignity: every human person is created in the image and likeness of God and has an inviolable dignity, value, and worth, regardless of race, gender, class, or other human characteristics. Therefore, both the most wounded victim and the most callous criminal retain their humanity. All are created in the image of God and possess a dignity, value, and worth that must be recognized, promoted, safeguarded, and defended. For this reason, any system of penal justice must provide those necessities that enable inmates to live in dignity: food, clothing, shelter, personal safety, timely medical care, education, and meaningful work adequate to the conditions of human dignity. Human dignity is not something we earn by our good behavior; it is something we have as children of God. We believe that because we are all created by God, "none of us is the sum total of the worst act we have ever committed. . . . As a people of faith, we believe that grace can transform even the most hardened and cruel human beings."
Victims, too, must have the help of the faith community in recovering their dignity. To be excluded from the proceedings against their offenders, to be ignored by friends and family, or to be neglected by the community of faith because their deep pain is unsettling only serves to further isolate victims and denies their dignity. All of us are called to stand with victims in their hurt and in their search for healing and genuine justice. This includes, of course, the children of the incarcerated, who themselves are seriously harmed by their parents' misdeeds.
Our tradition insists that every person has both rights and responsibilities. We have the right to life and to those things that make life human: faith and family, food and shelter, housing and health care, education and safety. We also have responsibilities to ourselves, to our families, and to the broader community. Crime and corrections are at the intersection of rights and responsibilities. Those who commit crimes violate the rights of others and disregard their responsibilities. But the test for the rest of us is whether we will exercise our responsibility to hold the offender accountable without violating his or her basic rights. Even offenders should be treated with respect for their rights.
We believe the human person is social. Our dignity, rights, and responsibilities are lived out in relationship with others, and primary among these is the family. The disintegration of family life and community has been a major contributor to crime. Supporting and rebuilding family ties should be central to efforts to prevent and respond to crime. Placing prisons in remote areas diminishes contacts with close relatives and undermines the family connections that could aid in restoration, especially for young offenders. Likewise, maintaining community and family connections can help offenders understand the harm they've done and prepare them for reintegration into society. Isolation may be necessary in some rare cases; but while cutting off family contact can make incarceration easier for those in charge, it can make reintegration harder for those in custody.
The principle of participation is especially important for victims of crime. Sometimes victims are "used" by the criminal justice system or political interests. As the prosecution builds a case, the victim's hurt and loss can be seen as a tool to obtain convictions and tough sentences. But the victim's need to be heard and to be healed are not really addressed.
The social dimension of our teaching leads us to the common good and its relationship to punishment. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, punishment by civil authorities for criminal activity should serve three principal purposes: (1) the preservation and protection of the common good of society, (2) the restoration of public order, and (3) the restoration or conversion of the offender. The concept of "redress," or repair of the harm done to the victims and to society by the criminal activity, is also important to restoring the common good. This often neglected dimension of punishment allows victims to move from a place of pain and anger to one of healing and resolution. In our tradition, restoring the balance of rights through restitution is an important element of justice.
This principle of Catholic social teaching recognizes that every public policy must be assessed by how it will affect the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. Sometimes people who lack adequate resources from early in life (i.e., children—especially those who have been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused—the mentally ill, and people who have suffered discrimination) turn to lives of crime in desperation or out of anger or confusion. Unaddressed needs—including proper nutrition, shelter, health care, and protection from abuse and neglect—can be stepping stones on a path towards crime. Our role as Church is to continually work to address these needsthrough pastoral care, charity, and advocacy.
These two related principles recognize that human dignity and human rights are fostered in community. Subsidiarity calls for problem-solving initially at the community level: family, neighborhood, city, and state. It is only when problems become too large or the common good is clearly threatened that larger institutions are required to help. This principle encourages communities to be more involved. Criminal activity is largely a local issue and, to the extent possible, should have local solutions. Neighborhood-watch groups, community-oriented policing, school liaison officers, neighborhood treatment centers, and local support for ex-offenders all can be part of confronting crime and fear of crime in local communities.
Solidarity recognizes that "we are all really responsible for all."33 Not only are we responsible for the safety and well-being of our family and our next-door neighbor, but Christian solidarity demands that we work for justice beyond our boundaries. Christians are asked to see Jesus in the face of everyone, including both victims and offenders. Through the lens of solidarity, those who commit crimes and are hurt by crime are not issues or problems; they are sisters and brothers, members of one human family. Solidarity calls us to insist on responsibility and seek alternatives that do not simply punish, but rehabilitate, heal, and restore.
(Source: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)