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Jewish World Review March 6, 2001 / 11 Adar, 5761

Nat Hentoff

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Testing compassionate conservatism -- GEORGE W. BUSH strongly supports increasing the involvement of faith-based organizations in salutary government activities. The president, therefore, would be well-advised to consult a recent publication of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, an organization I came to know through my friendship with the late Cardinal John O'Connor.

Titled "Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice," the statement, say the bishops, "is a major initiative that is going to engage us pastorally and in advocacy for years to come."

In presenting the document, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles emphasized, "We will not tolerate the crime and violence that threatens the lives and dignity of our sisters and brothers, and we will not give up on those who have lost their way and have been caught up in crime and punishment."

The bishops reject "simplistic solutions such as 'three strikes and you're out' and mandatory sentencing. One-size-fits-all solutions are often inadequate. The combination of accountability and flexibility works best with those who are trying to change their lives."

Going against the current move to treat young offenders as though they were adults, the bishops emphatically note that "placing children in adult jails is a sign of failure, not a solution."

In what I expect will strike many, including perhaps some Catholics, as "bleeding-heart liberalism," the bishops point out, "We cannot ignore the fact that one-fifth of our preschoolers are growing up in poverty and far too many go to bed hungry. Any comprehensive approach to criminal justice must address these factors."

A good many of these children, especially in families with single mothers, are victims of the Clinton and Republican welfare "reform."

The Catholic bishops have previously called for an end to the death penalty, and they speak again on that issue: "Increasing reliance on the death penalty diminishes us and is a sign of growing disrespect for human life." (Abortion is another form of disrespect for human life.)

"We cannot overcome crime," the statement continues, "by simply executing criminals, nor can we restore the lives of the innocent by ending the lives of those convicted of their murders. ... The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life."

Moreover, "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."

According to the bishops, our "astounding rate of incarceration, six to twelve times higher than the rate of other Western countries," is due not only to "three strikes and you're out," but also to "zero tolerance for drug offenders."

The bishops also target the growing number of "supermax" prisons in which the most dangerous offenders are kept in "small cells by themselves for 22 to 24 hours each day."

I've reported on some of these prisons. Such extreme isolation makes many of the prisoners more dangerous upon their release than they were when they entered these human warehouses. And those who are mentally disturbed become much worse.

The bishops make another point that is often ignored by those who accuse critics of the present system of being "soft on criminals": We increasingly locate prisons, says the statement, "in remote areas far away from communities where most crimes are committed," which "creates hardships on families of inmates" because of the distances they have to travel to visit family members in prison.

"Being away from support systems is especially hard on juvenile offenders, who need family and community support," the bishops write. "Regular inmate contact with family and friends reduces the likelihood they will return to a life of crime."

Distant prisons also make it easier for the rest of us to avoid thinking about the burgeoning numbers of incarcerated Americans -- and the abandonment of the very idea of rehabilitation by those who run prisons.

Accordingly, unless there is a prison riot, the media keeps us comfortably ignorant of the conditions in some of these prisons -- conditions that greatly disturbed Charles Dickens when he visited American prisons in the 19th century.

Tellingly, much of the media have completely ignored the message of the bishops.

The bishops also speak of the need for more attention to the victims of crime: "Too often the criminal justice system neglects the hurt and needs of victims or seeks to exploit their anger and pain to support punitive policies." And the more punitive the policies, the more recidivists our prisons breed.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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