Challenges for the Criminal Justice Process in the South

This is the first in a series of six pastoral statements by Catholic Bishops of the South on the Criminal Justice process and a gospel response.


“Our response to crime in the United States is a moral test for our nation and a challenge for our Church.” U.S. Catholic Bishops statement, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” November 2000.

As pastoral leaders of the Roman Catholic community, we would like to reflect with you on the themes of responsibility, rehabilitation and restoration in light of the reality of crime and criminal justice in our area of the country. In November 2000, all the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued a national statement, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.”

As our 2000 statement said, no one can deny that criminal behavior which threatens the lives and dignity of others undermines our common good. But putting more people in prison and putting more people to death has not given Americans the security we seek. Our Catholic approach begins with the recognition that our belief in the dignity of each human person applies to both victim and offender. As Catholics, we are convinced that our tradition and our faith offer better alternatives than the slogans and policy cliches of conservatives and liberals.

Crime and the fear of crime touch many lives and divide many communities. One out of every twenty-seven Americans over the age of twelve is the victim of a violent crime each year. One out of every four households suffers a property crime each year. African American and Hispanic Americans are victimized by crime at far higher rates than others. Thus, all of us have an important stake in making sure that the victims of crime are supported and that the criminal justice system become more responsive to their concerns.

Because the criminal justice system is so important, it is critical to recognize that there are several indications that it needs improvement.

Too many of our people are in prison. The U.S. now leads the entire world in the rate of incarceration of its citizens. Footnote The U.S. Department of Justice reported a record high number of people, almost 6.6 million, 3.1 percent of our nation’s population, were either on probation or parole or held in a prison or jail as of 2001. Footnote While the national average state incarceration rate was 422 per 100,000 residents, the south states had an incarceration rate of 526. Footnote All seven of the states with the highest incarceration rates in the nation are in the South. Footnote

There is evidence of racism in the criminal justice system. In the age group 25-29, just over 1% of white males are in state or federal prison, compared to 3% of Hispanic males and 10% of African American males. Footnote Racial profiling of African Americans remains a troubling practice in too many areas of law enforcement.

Poor education is clearly part of the problem. Two out of every three state prison inmates had not completed high school. Footnote There are now more black men in jail or prison than there are in colleges or universities. Footnote

Public defender attorneys for poor people charged with crimes are usually overworked and underfunded. They are all too frequently unable to provide adequate legal representation. In rural areas, public defenders are often completely absent. Mandatory sentencing laws reduce the discretion of judges to make the punishment fit the crime and send increasing numbers of people to prison.

The ultimate punishment, the death penalty, has been used far too often and in an unfair and unjust fashion. More than 80% of the persons executed in our country have been put to death in our Southern states, and yet our region still has the highest murder rate in our nation. Footnote This would indicate that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder. In addition, there is racial injustice in the application of the death penalty in our country and in our region. An African American offender who kills a white person is many times more likely to be sentenced to death than a white offender who kills an African American.


We must seek new, restorative approaches. We do not suggest this is an easy process, but we must continue to find ways to respond to crime that are consistent with the love and truth of Jesus Christ.

We ask our local church communities to reach out to every victim of crime. We must work to assist in efforts of pastoral counseling, support through the criminal justice process, and recovery of loss. We further encourage exploration and development of victim-offender mediation and reconciliation programs in our communities.

We cannot sit quietly while executions continue. We ask all people to join us in speaking out against the death penalty at every opportunity and opposing it in every available forum.

Finally, we ask all people of good will to join us in a thorough re-examination of our criminal justice system. When we respond to the evils of crime we must do so in a manner that is consistent with our commitment to the essential human dignity of each person, whether they be victims of crime or offenders. We call on all people of faith to pray, study and act in order to transform every unjust aspect of our current criminal justice system so that it respects the essential human dignity of each and every victim and each and every offender.

Only when our criminal justice system reflects the love and truth of Jesus Christ will our communities be truly safe and just.