Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pope Francis on Criminal Justice

Pope Francis sent comments to the 19th Congress of the International Criminal Law Association and the 3rd Congress of the Latin American Association for Penal Law and Criminology, held last week in Buenos Aires.

Unfortunately, the Bear was unable to attend in person.

This does tie in nicely, however, with yesterday's discussion of criminal law. According to Zenit, the Pope said the following in regard to retributive justice:
“[T]he Lord has gradually taught his people that there is a necessary asymmetry between crime and punishment, that an eye or a broken tooth cannot be restored by taking or breaking another. It is a matter of bringing justice to the victim, not punishing the aggressor”, and “in our societies we tend to think that crimes are solved when we capture and sentence the criminal, largely avoiding the damage caused or without paying sufficient attention to the situation in which the victims find themselves.
In the United States, at least in the jurisdictions with which the Bear is familiar, prosecutors' offices have victim advocates who are supposed to help victims deal with the stresses of trial, which can be considerable in a traumatic case, such as murder or sexual assault.

There are five generally recognized goals of criminal justice:

  1. punishment
  2. incapacitation (an offender cannot commit more crimes against society at large)
  3. deterrence (others will take a lesson from the punishment and not commit that crime)
  4. restitution (the victim is made whole, at least as far as possible, obviously easier in financial crimes than crimes against the person)
  5. rehabilitation (helping the criminal fit into society as a contributing member)

Often sentencing laws are indefensible. Long mandatory prison sentences (e.g. 20 years in the federal system for a second drug offense) over-punish people for being drug addicts. Only recently have the Department of Justice and Congress begun to reconsider the wisdom of these sentences. 

In federal court, the Bear sees a lot of methamphetamine cases, and hardly anyone is actually selling the stuff. Rather people form what the Bear calls "meth co-ops" where each participant supplies pseudoephedrine pills, or anhydrous ammonia  -- the primary ingredients in the manufacture of methamphetamine -- in return for a part of the finished product.

Meth is a very addictive and destructive drug, but better rehabilitation resources on the front end would make more sense than our current bloated prison system.

In Illinois, we had a toothless capital punishment system, where expensive show trials were conducted despite a moratorium on executions. Thus politicians were able to sound tough on crime without the nightmare of more wrongful convictions resulting in the execution of innocent people. (At one point, half the prisoners on death row were proven to be wrongfully convicted through DNA or other means, reducing execution to the flip of a coin.) Illinois finally abolished the Bear's job and capital punishment in 2011.

The Pope commented on the confusion between justice and vengeance. 

However, it would be a mistake to identify reparation solely with punishment, to confuse justice and vengeance, which can only contribute to increasing violence, even if this latter is institutionalised. Experience teaches us that the increase and hardening of penalties often neither solves social problems, nor reduces crime rates. And, furthermore, this may give rise to serious social problems, such as overcrowding of prisons or prisoners detained without trial”.
We have speedy trial laws that generally get people to trial in a reasonable amount of time here in the United States. Most delay is attributable to the defense. The Bear's motto is "we will try no case before its time." Delay always benefits the defense. Not that the Bear would stoop to dilatory tactics to result in delay for the sake of delay.
“In this regard”, he continues, “means of communication … play a very important role and hold great responsibility: we depend on them to give accurate information and not to contribute to creating alarm or social panic when they provide news of criminal activities. The life and dignity of people is at stake, and these must be turned into media events, subject to attention often of an unhealthy nature, condemning the suspects to social disparagement before being judged or forcing victims, for sensationalist purposes, to publicly relive their suffering”.
The Bear calls this "murdertainment." It is a scandal in this country. Nancy Grace should be.. well, she should be cancelled, let's just leave it at that and not be a bad bear. There is not much you can do with a free press, but participants in the system contribute to the circus, too. Illinois has very strict rules about what may be said, and prosecutors are responsible for what police say, but there is no enforcement of those rules. (It can come back and bite prosecutors in an embarrassing way in a change of venue motion, though.) The Bear finds defense counsel who can't wait to crawl into a television studio for their fifteen minutes of fame an embarrassment to the profession. The "retaliatory media strike" has its place, but not what we routinely see in sensationalized cases.
The second aspect, confession, is “the attitude of those who recognise and admit their guilt. If the criminal is not sufficiently helped, he or she is not offered the chance to be able to convert, and ends up as a victim of the system. … It is necessary to move forward and to do everything possible to correct, improve and educate the person so that he is able to mature in respects, so he is not discouraged and faces the damage caused, rethinking his life without being crushed by the weight of his miseries. ... And we must ask ourselves why some fall and others do not, in spite of being in the same condition. 
The Bear has noticed that "jailhouse religion" is a very real phenomenon. Unfortunately, however well-meaning the efforts, the Bear has no reason to suspect it produces any real conversion. Protestantism is focused on the "I confess" moment -- just like police interrogations, ironically. In both cases, the followup to confirm the confession is lacking. There needs to be some sort of hand-off between the jail ministry and the prison ministry. Right now people land in prison without religious support when they need it most.

The Catholic Church has so much to offer, but to the Bear's knowledge, there is no Catholic jailhouse ministry in his neck of the woods. Of course, this is the Bible Belt, so perhaps it is different elsewhere. Catholicism is not big on individual initiative. God forbid someone should accidentally proselytize a non-Catholic. Better leave that sort of things to the Muslims and Aryan Nations, who lack our scruples.

All-in-all, the remarks seem sensible and compassionate to the Bear.


  1. If you are looking for assistance/support, I suggest you contact Fr. Christian Reuter, the Belleville diocesan coordinator for prison ministry.


    (This article is at a Black Catholic web site. He is an older white man. Not that it should matter.)


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