National President of SVDP calls for reforms in Criminal Justice System
Dear Fellow Vincentians:
In our continued advocacy to bring about substantial reform in our criminal justice system in line with Catholic Social Teaching on Restorative Justice, I write to again ask that you contact your U.S. Senators and Representative to urge them to support changes now being proposed in both the House and the Senate.
Some promising new legislation has recently appeared on the horizon, and prompts my request to you to once again state clearly, forcefully and immediately the value you see in this type of legislation as Vincentians who work directly in the field with the poor and marginalized, many of whom have become or stay that way precisely because of their criminal background.
As Pope Francis modeled for us when he visited the marginalized in the Philadelphia prison during his recent trip to the United States, we as Catholics and Vincentians recognize the face of Jesus even in those who have committed criminal acts. We see and understand their inherent human dignity and our faith compels us to seek for them opportunities for a second chance, for rehabilitation, for restoration, and for a productive return to society. Indeed, as many of you know well, through our innovative five year Vincentian Re-entry Organizing Project, the Society is acting in full accord with those very goals and objectives by reaching out to and uniting Vincentians and ex-offenders in five specially selected states. Funded through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the Project is showing what can be done when Vincentians are aware, involved, and collaborating with others.
Through various independent research studies and analytical reports and from our own understanding of the human psyche, we know that criminal activity by an individual is often the logical by-product of a fractured and distressed upbringing in a severely dysfunctional family; of addiction to drugs and alcohol; of exposure at an early age to crime, violence and perhaps domestic abuse; of a lack of education and training; of mental health issues; of generational poverty; and of homelessness and distressed housing conditions. It is not caused by a human being made in a flawed way by our Creator and Lord, but by a person who by reason of his appalling circumstances has found he or she could only survive by a life of crime.
Over the last several decades, our collective response as a society has sadly been to react by incarcerating ever more of our fellow citizens in ever more prisons, and at the same time withdraw and restrict services these offenders need to right their lives, services such as counseling, education, training, and re-entry support programs. The cost is enormous – an estimated $80 billion nationwide and 2.2 million mothers, fathers, children, brothers, and sisters in prison and jail, far more proportionately than any other nation on earth. Moreover, with the current system’s lack of rehabilitative and restorative services and the focus on punishment, the recidivism rate remains high. All sides from conservative to liberal now agree that the system is broken and must be revamped, but Congress has yet to find the precise right mix of legislation to advance forward, though promising signs continue to appear.
In this case, one of the most promising signs is the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, passed in October by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It is being supported by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and Catholic Charities USA. Notably, this Act reflects many of the recommendations submitted by the Society, USCCB, and Catholic Charities in joint testimony to the Judiciary Committee in July 2015.
Catholic Charities and USCCB also report that the House of Representatives is working on bipartisan criminal justice reform, but is taking a piecemeal rather than a comprehensive approach. The first piece of legislation expecting consideration in the House is the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 (H.R. 3713). Over the coming weeks, House Committee leadership is expected to introduce additional bipartisan criminal justice bills to address over-criminalization, prison reform, prisoner reentry reform, and juvenile justice.
In addition, the Second Chance Reauthorization Act (S. 1513), supported by CCUSA and the USCCB, is still pending in Congress. Its aim is to reduce recidivism, increase public safety, and help states and communities better assist the growing population of ex-offenders returning to communities.
In 2000, the Bishops issued a Pastoral Statement considered to be the leading Church Social Teaching in the United States on Restorative Criminal Justice. Entitled “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” the Bishops’ teaching presciently observed fifteen years ago:
“All those whom we consulted seemed to agree on one thing; the status quo is not really working – victims are often ignored, offenders are not rehabilitated, and many communities have lost their sense of identity.”
Please write your Congressional Representatives to tell them our nation cannot wait any longer to transform our criminal justice system. Click here for a template message to Congress, which you can easily modify to suit your own style and emphasis. The message lists the key provisions of restorative justice which should form the foundation of our new laws. This approach will move us much closer to the example set by Jesus in the Gospels and the Pope in Philadelphia. If we hesitate, we may be waiting another 15 years.
Yours in the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul and Blessed Frederic Ozanam,
United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul