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Published: Saturday, 11/25/2000

Improve criminal justice

An appeal by Roman Catholic bishops for improvements in the criminal justice system demands public attention. Their conclusion that “the status quo is not really working” is a call for action from officials throughout criminal justice and whole communities.

The American bishops, in a document called “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” have outlined the need to genuinely rehabilitate criminals and to give more attention to the welfare of victims of crime.

Although it is the first such statement from the Catholic bishops in more than 20 years, its timing is appropriate. Crime rates are down across the nation, but prisons are full and the concept of rehabilitation is largely scoffed at in many states' penal systems. While a lot of tough-on-crime Americans don't much care whether prisoners are rehabilitated, that is a dangerous attitude.

In their search for “both justice and mercy,” the bishops oppose rigid mandatory sentencing and incarcerating children in adult jails. The move to try children as adults accused of murder and other felonies has come under criticism because child advocates rightly do not want youth imprisoned with adults.

The document also recommends that drug addicts and the mentally ill receive whatever treatment is necessary. That's sensible. Putting addicts and mentally ill people in jail or prison without helping them is pointless warehousing with a price down the road for society.

It may seem odd to some that the bishops want crime victims kept abreast of legal proceedings and allowed to speak at sentencings. The victims' assistance program in the Lucas County prosecutor's office provides excellent service in those areas. Communities that don't have similar services should consider them.

Certainly there will not be universal agreement with the bishops' recommendations. In fact, their opposition to the death penalty gives us pause, and no doubt many others. This newspaper vigorously supports capital punishment once guilt is clearly established.

The bishops don't expect change to come by way of criminal justice alone. The wider community must be involved. The document, which took three years to compose, details how parishes and dioceses can assist victims, prisoners, and families.

Other denominations could do likewise and compose similar statements, or perhaps find a way to link with their Catholic brethren to foster change. It will take more than the Catholic Church to effectively improve the criminal justice system. It is the entire community's challenge, and society's.

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