A decade ago, in November 2000, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral statement titled Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice. Unapologetically critiquing a criminal-justice system focused primarily on punishment, the bishops called the American response to crime “a moral test for our nation and a challenge for our church.”

Their statement chastised the United States for its “astounding” rate of incarceration, “six to twelve times higher than the rate of other Western countries,” and went on to suggest changes that would make the system more humane and socially beneficial. “Putting more people in prison and, sadly, more people to death has not given Americans the security we seek,” the bishops declared. “It is time for a new national dialogue on crime and corrections, justice and mercy, responsibility and treatment.”

The backdrop to the bishops’ pastoral was a dramatic rise in the incarceration rate. In the twenty years preceding their report, that rate rose steeply and steadily, more than tripling to 683 prisoners per 100,000 of the population—which meant 2 million people behind bars and a total bill to federal, state, and local governments of about $64 billion. Closer inspection of the ranks of the imprisoned raised even more concerns. Prisons were increasingly admitting nonviolent criminals, especially those guilty of drug-related infractions. The prison population was increasingly made up of minorities: by 2000 about 60 percent of those imprisoned were either black or Hispanic. And Harvard sociologist Bruce Western noted that more than half of all African-American men who lack high-school diplomas were imprisoned by age thirty-four.

Scholars who studied the issue concluded that the prison buildup was not simply a response to rising crime: violent-crime rates in 2000, in fact, roughly equaled those of 1980, while property-crime rates were actually lower. The trend toward mass incarceration was rooted rather in a series of policy changes aimed at winning political favor by “getting tough on crime.” These included mandatory sentencing, “three strikes and you’re out” laws, and harsher rules for probation and parole. And so the same amount of crime yielded substantially more incarceration. Nor did the strategy of mass imprisonment contribute much toward keeping crime down. Even the most generous estimates suggested a relatively minor role in crime prevention; many studies showed that rates of violent crime were unaffected. Indeed, as we shall see, some evidence suggests that certain crimes might actually have increased as a result.

For the bishops a decade ago, the existing approaches to criminal justice were severely at odds with the church’s scriptural, theological, and sacramental heritage. “A Catholic approach begins with the recognition that the dignity of the human person applies to both victim and offender,” they wrote. “As bishops, we believe that the current trend of more prisons and more executions, with too little education and drug treatment, does not truly reflect Christian values and will not really leave our communities safer.” The overriding emphasis on punishment, the harsh and dehumanizing conditions of prisons, the lack of help to prisoners attempting reentry into society: these and other failures of the system led the bishops to call for a new direction, one that emphasized restorative justice and reintegration while insisting on the well-being and fair treatment of both prisoners and their victims.

The system envisioned by the bishops offered prisoners re-integration into the community, including the opportunity for reconciliation with those harmed, even as it supported victim restitution. It rejected crudely punitive strategies, such as mandatory sentencing, that neglect the complex sources of crime and the particularities of an individual criminal’s makeup. The bishops also called for better treatment within the prison walls, including expanded counseling, health care, education, and training to help emerging prisoners integrate successfully into society. They recommended that prisons be easily accessible to family, friends, and religious communities able to support the development and growth of prisoners. Finally, they reminded us of the community’s responsibility to work toward reducing crime and helping those at risk of engaging in criminal activities.

These proposals added up to a progressive analysis of crime, punishment, and prevention, and it would be hard to argue against the bishops’ prescriptions or the moral basis that underpinned them. A decade later, however, both the pastoral’s criticisms and its suggestions seem all too limited. The criticism focused mainly on shortcomings in the condition and treatment of individual prisoners and victims. While these remain important concerns, recent research has highlighted serious detrimental effects that the justice system has on the broader communities from which prisoners come and to which they ultimately return. These community-level effects have added substantially to the individual-level problems the nation’s prison policy has created. Recognizing these consequences will help lead to a broader and deeper critique than the one articulated in the pastoral—a critique, moreover, that points the way to a criminal-justice system more in line with the principles of Catholic social thought.

The bishops analyzed the effects of prisons using what Rutgers sociologist Todd Clear has called an “atomistic view.” An atomistic view focuses on the individual prisoner—why he commits a crime, how he is treated within the criminal-justice system, and what happens to him once he is released. While such a view addresses the important issue of personal dignity, it mostly ignores the larger social fact that the individual prisoner is but one of over 2 million, and that those imprisoned come from geographically concentrated neighborhoods. A broader view discloses other problems. Imprisoning a large fraction of individuals from a particular community, it turns out, can cause that community substantial harm—especially when that community was disadvantaged to begin with.

Recent studies have illuminated the many ways this harm can occur. To begin with, mass imprisonment removes spending power from a community, as most of those incarcerated are working at the time of their arrest and contributing significantly to their families’ income. Furthermore, as sociologists Bruce Western and Devah Pager have demonstrated, incarceration significantly limits the earning capacity of ex-inmates through the erosion of their marketable skills, the loss of social networks, prison socialization into destructive behaviors, and, perhaps most important, the scarlet letter of a prison record. Ex-prisoners are barred from a large array of occupations in this country, ranging from emergency medicine to cosmetology; in thirty-seven states, employers are allowed to consider arrests without conviction when making hiring decisions. And loss of income is not limited to the incarcerated parent, but also afflicts the remaining parent, since childcare needs can significantly decrease the time available to find and keep a job. Research has consistently shown, moreover, that children with an incarcerated parent frequently suffer high levels of anxiety, shame, and depression; and attending to these needs forms a further obstacle to the remaining parent’s participation in the labor force.

Such considerations reveal just how complex and multidimensional the impact of mass incarceration can be. At the community level, it disrupts social networks that bolster the chance for quality employment. The loss of an adult family member, especially one with years of experience in the legitimate labor market, reduces the “friend-of-a-friend” connections that aid employment. As sociologists Robert Sampson and Stephen Raudenbush point out, whole communities with high incarceration rates can become stigmatized, decreasing the likelihood that members will be hired, even those with no prison record. Other studies have suggested that mass incarceration disrupts a neighborhood’s informal mechanisms of social support, as the constant churn of people in and out weakens bonds and diminishes collective identity. This in turn strains individual resources—as when parents who cannot rely on neighbors to look after children must spend money or forgo wages to do it themselves. The removal of adult breadwinners, meanwhile, eliminates role models important for young people. And the blatantly unequal and racialized use of incarceration can delegitimize governmental authority among youth and fuel an oppositional subculture in which mainstream activities such as work are devalued. These detrimental effects of concentrated incarceration on a community’s norms and sense of collective efficacy may ultimately prevent residents from escaping what might otherwise be merely episodic poverty.

Another direct link to poverty is the increased prevalence of single-parent families. Not only does mass imprisonment shrink the pool of young men available for marriage, but the prison experience itself can make men less suitable for marriage. And single parenthood is a significant contributor to poverty and related social ills. As for released inmates, they face restricted access to the social-safety net. Several states, such as Texas and Missouri, deny them food stamps, public housing, and TANF, federal assistance for needy families. And the overhaul of the federal welfare system in 1996—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—included a lifetime ban on cash assistance and food stamps for anyone convicted of a drug offense. These rules not only impede the re-integration of ex-prisoners, but put the community as a whole at risk, especially children. Mass incarceration has also been associated with growing and serious community-health problems. Economists Steven Raphael and Michael Stoll, for example, have linked the prevalence of AIDS in poor communities to the transmission of the disease through sexual violence in prison. This in turn renders communities less able to deal with other crucial concerns.

Beyond all this lies a political dimension. Mass incarceration can exacerbate a community’s long-term economic deprivation by politically disenfranchising those with the greatest stake in policies that might help lift people out of poverty. In forty-eight states, prisoners cannot vote. Many states disallow voting while on probation or parole, and a few states, like Florida, permanently disenfranchise those convicted of a felony. According to a study by the Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch [PDF], as of 1998 3.9 million Americans—about one in fifty adults—had either temporarily or permanently lost their right to vote. A clear racial imbalance characterizes this loss; the study revealed that about one in seven black men had either temporarily or permanently lost the right to vote, and in several states, nearly one in four black men of voting age were permanently disenfranchised. To make matters worse, census procedures dictate that prisoners be counted not in their home communities, but in the jurisdiction where they are imprisoned. Since the areas where prisoners come from tend to be urban, diverse, and Democratic, while prisons are frequently located in rural, white, and Republican districts, high-incarceration communities suffer a sort of electoral double-whammy, with political power drained away from them and transferred to politically antithetical communities that receive greater representation because of their sizable, nonvoting inmate population. The end result is less legislative support for—and greater opposition to—a variety of progressive initiatives that could aid disadvantaged communities, including, for example, a boost in the statewide minimum wage.

Finally, as if all this weren’t bad enough, it is clear that the harms done to a community’s economy by mass incarceration are likely to be multiplied. In a vicious feedback loop, decreased spending caused by lost income due to incarceration results in fewer businesses being able to remain solvent. When businesses go under, additional residents lose their jobs and fall below the poverty line, depressing spending further. Crucial nonprofit institutions, such as community churches, can be negatively affected as well by the economic contraction. Because such institutions frequently provide goods and services that alleviate poverty, crime, and other social ills, their weakening can intensify the collateral consequences of mass incarceration.

Some observers have suggested that increased incarceration can benefit disadvantaged communities by removing socially disruptive young men. This idea has intuitive appeal, yet it loses force in the context of mass incarceration. While the removal of just a few “bad apples” might well have positive implications, in some communities more than a third of the population of young males is in prison; this is less like removing a few apples than like uprooting the whole tree. In such situations the negative effects will likely outweigh whatever positive effects might exist. Our own research indicates that mass incarceration in recent decades has plunged millions of Americans into poverty. Other studies suggest potentially criminogenic consequences of mass imprisonment, arising from the release into the community of large numbers of prisoners exposed to an isolating and sometimes violent prison environment. According to criminologists Lynn Vieraitis, Tomislav Kovandzic, and Thomas Marvell, imprisonment trends in the past few decades actually increase the incidence of various types of crime. And our own research suggests that any such crime-inducing effects of imprisonment can persist for many years.

In light of these manifest problems, we believe that Catholic Social Teaching (CST) should broaden its engagement with the criminal-justice system to include what we term “community justice.” By community justice we mean the consideration of the community as an organic whole whose treatment should be subject to the demands of justice. Understanding communities this way is common for sociological analysis, but not perhaps for the kind of analysis typically used in CST. Yet with mass incarceration, it is simply not the case that the total damage equals the sum of individual harms. Rather, entire communities have been damaged, suffering perilous losses to their collective social, cultural, and physical capital.

This perspective opens up new questions and suggests new applications of CST to the criminal-justice system. Diminution of the common good, for instance, is much graver when entire communities are destroyed. The urgency of a preferential option for the poor is heightened when policies push millions more people into poverty. The social nature of the person and solidarity are violated more seriously when entire social networks and sets of norms are damaged. Barriers to participation are much greater when whole communities are stigmatized because of high levels of incarceration. Such perspectives both require and inform a broader, deeper critique of our penal system.

A community-justice lens can also help highlight the racial imbalance in mass imprisonment. Bruce Western and Loïc Wacquant have argued that policy initiatives, like the “War on Drugs,” that have led to mass incarceration and the disproportionate incarceration of minorities constitute a reaction against the civil-rights movement. They represent, in other words, a new means of social control, in the tradition of such outlawed forms as blatant job discrimination, Jim Crow laws, and housing segregation, which effectively isolates members of a devalued social group and limits their access to valued resources. To the extent that this is accurate, criminal-justice policy directly violates several principles of CST, including the dignity of the person, the social nature of the person, participation, solidarity, and the universal destination of goods. Seen this way, mass incarceration isn’t merely an ineffective system needing improvement. Rather, it is a sinful, repugnant, and disordered structure worthy of wholesale replacement.

What practical steps might be taken to bring this disordered system into line with Catholic principles? First and foremost, we need to incarcerate fewer people. One recent proposal by economists John Schmitt, Kris Warner, and Sarika Gupta argues that half of all nonviolent criminals could be removed from prison and put on probation or parole with no appreciable effect on public safety, at a savings of close to $17 billion—considerable resources for the common good, an especially attractive benefit for struggling state governments. Meaningful reductions in incarceration can also be achieved via judicious changes to parole and probation rules. Minor violations (such as lying about previous prison time on job applications) that can now land parolees back in jail, could be handled less punitively, keeping ex-inmates in the community. All in all, sociologist Todd Clear has suggested, the prison population could be cut in half by eliminating imprisonment for technical parole violations, trimming the length of parole supervision, and reducing prison sentences to those used twenty years ago.

Policies should be enacted to strengthen the efficacy of communities and their ability to exercise social control and offer social support. Foremost here are access to decent legitimate employment opportunities as well as to the child-care and transportation that facilitate working. Along these lines, the bipartisan Second Chance Act of 2008 suggests a heightened recognition of the problems of prisoner reentry and a new political willingness to do something about them. Signed by President George W. Bush and supported by President Barack Obama, the law authorizes federal grants for employment and housing assistance, drug and alcohol abuse treatment, and other services to reentering offenders. In addition, all restrictions on work should be scrutinized, and those not demonstrably necessary to community safety should be removed. States can also reconsider allowing arrests without convictions to be factored into employment decisions.

The voting rights of ex-prisoners and those on probation and parole should be guaranteed, not only to assure individual rights (as the bishops stressed), but to give reentering prisoners a tangible stake in their communities. They should also be given full access to the safety net, including the basic programs (such as food stamps and TANF) that are essential for low-income communities, especially children. Public programs should treat poor ex-prisoners as well as they treat nonpoor ex-prisoners. Today, while public housing is denied to ex-inmates, the mortgage-interest deduction, essentially a housing program for middle- and upper-class families, is not. This surely runs counter to the call for a preferential option for the poor.

The principles of Catholic Social Teaching have provided a useful framework for reflection and guidance in addressing countless social problems over the past century. The arena of criminal justice is no exception. For a decade, the bishops’ pastoral has served as a powerful reminder that justice involves not only punishment but also the hard work of supporting the common good. As the bishops have pointed out, supporting the common good means helping the individual rejoin the community. And as we have stressed here, there must be a strong and vibrant community available to reintegrate with.

Sadly, in the ten years since the bishops’ pastoral was published, the disturbing trends it addressed have only continued, with the latest data showing the 2008 incarceration rate reaching 753 per 100,000 of the U.S. population, at a total direct cost of about $75 billion. The trends in racial composition and the decreased severity of crimes meriting incarceration have continued as well. Meanwhile, the evidence for incarceration’s crime-reducing effect has weakened considerably. These failures demand our renewed attention and effort.

We have tried here to broaden the view presented in the bishops’ pastoral to recognize that incarceration on the scale seen in this country affects not only the individual but also the community at large, significantly amplifying poverty, crime, and other social pathologies. Analyses that fail to incorporate these community-level effects will continue to underestimate the harms caused by the current American approach to criminal justice. The principles of Catholic social teaching, on the other hand, can markedly improve what is clearly a broken system. Reconstructing the criminal-justice system in ways consistent with those principles will put us on a path toward respecting both the authentic development of the individual and the common good, and help us reverse an all-out assault on our most vulnerable communities.


The authors' work was supported in part by a Veritas grant from Villanova University.

Related: Worth Taking a Chance, by Joseph Sorrentino
The God of Ambition, by Chandra Bozelko

Published in the 2011-01-28 issue: View Contents
Robert DeFina is a professor in the Sociology Department at Villanova University. His teaching and research interests include labor markets, poverty, and social inequality. He is co-editor of the Journal of Catholic Social Thought.
Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.