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Bishops Urge Wide Justice Reform

Catholics: National panel led by Mahony favors punishment with a purpose but rejects mandatory sentencing and trying children as adults.

November 15, 2000|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

WASHINGTON — Decrying a trend of more prisons and executions and too little education and drug treatment, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops today will call for sweeping changes in the nation's criminal justice system.

By adopting a proposal spearheaded by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, the bishops will reject mandatory sentencing laws and California's three strikes law as "simplistic" solutions to crime.

They will also declare that they cannot support policies that treat young offenders as adults, and that convicted criminals should have their right to vote restored once they have served their sentences.

"Putting more people in prison and, sadly, more people to death, has not given Americans the security we seek," the declaration said.

The proposal, three years in the making by the bishops' Domestic Policy Committee, chaired by Mahony, is intended to mobilize local parishes, dioceses and state Catholic conferences to educate themselves about crime and punishment in the United States. Mahony said he envisions the church working with other groups to press state legislatures and Congress to vote for change.

The committee statement is expected to win easy approval today by about 300 prelates attending the annual fall meeting here of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. As a statement of their beliefs, the declaration represents the thinking and expectation of the U.S. church hierarchy.

The 43-page declaration attempts to balance justice and mercy.

"We cannot and will not tolerate behavior that threatens lives and violates the rights of others," the statement said. "We believe in responsibility, accountability and legitimate punishment. Those who harm others or damage property must be held accountable for the hurt they have caused."

The declaration said that imprisoning dangerous individuals does protect the public and ensure public safety. In some cases, it also deters crime. Tougher sanctions against drunk drivers is a case in point.

"However, punishment for its own sake is not a Christian response to crime. Punishment must have a purpose. It must be coupled with treatment and, when possible, restitution," the committee said.

The statement said the Catholic Church will pursue changes that would emphasize crime prevention, rehabilitation and treatment.

But such a vision, it said, must be accompanied by "a moral revolution" in which society reasserts traditional values of family and community, respect and responsibility and teaching right from wrong.

Mahony said one of his first actions will be to meet with newly elected Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley to discuss the bishops' concerns.

Mahony's office also disclosed Tuesday that the cardinal wrote Gov. Gray Davis on Oct. 25 to express "concern" about the governor's opposition to virtually all paroles recommended by the state Board of Prison Terms. Since he took office nearly two years ago, Davis has blocked 33 of 34 parole grants.

"I would ask you to reconsider your policy that takes away the only real incentive inmates currently have to commit themselves to genuine rehabilitation," Mahony wrote Davis.

The declaration comes at a time when voters in California have given mixed signals when it comes to getting tough on criminals.

They have voted for more prisons and tougher penalties for crimes. Last March, for example, California voters approved Proposition 21, which permits prosecutors to try many violent offenders and gang members under the age of 18 as adults. It also requires adult trials for juveniles as young as 14 if they are accused of murder and certain sex crimes.

"Placing children in adult jails is a sign of failure, not a solution," they said. Predictably, they restated the church's opposition to capital punishment.

Earlier, California voters approved the controversial "three strikes" law, which mandates lengthy prison sentences for repeat offenders, even if the offense is relatively minor.

Striking a different note, California voters last week handily approved Proposition 36, which calls for government-funded treatment, rather than imprisonment, for low-level drug criminals. Now in California, nearly one in three of the state's 162,000 prisoners is serving time for a drug-related crime.

Mahony called passage of Proposition 36 a "hopeful sign," but said it will be up to the Legislature and governor to adequately fund the treatment programs.

While calling for changes in the way justice is administered, the statement also strongly affirmed the rights of crime victims. It noted that victims and their families suffer both physical and emotional wounds that may never fully heal.

The committee statement also cautioned that often the only outlet offered to victims and relatives is to testify in court and call for harsh punishment. The bishops said such scenes, often filled with emotion, are exploited by prosecutors to persuade courts to land down harsher penalties.

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