Local network promotes discussion around criminal justice reform

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Catholic Criminal Justice Reform Network is working to bring Catholic social teaching to the discussion of reforming the criminal justice system in the United States, emphasizing that all people, including those who have committed crimes, have the dignity that comes from being made in the image and likeness of God.

The network, started last year by the Lumen Christi Institute in Hyde Park, is bringing together Catholic law schools, universities, jail and prison chaplains and legal practitioners for a series of online events, and it is planning a spring 2022 meeting in Washington, D.C., with members of the network as well as representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to Thomas Levergood, the institute’s executive director.

There are also plans for a book to be published next year, Levergood said.

The idea sprang from a 2016 Lumen Christi presentation by James Q. Whitman of Yale University Law School, speaking about his book, “Harsh Justice: The Widening Divide Between America and Europe,” Levergood said.

Cook County Judge Thomas More Donnelly, a past president of the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Chicago and a member of the guild’s board, brought up the idea for a such a network, Levergood said.

Donnelly said that the need for reform of the criminal justice system in the U.S. is clear.

“The events of the last two years have brought around an agreement among the American public, scholars, legislators and people who work within the system that there is a definite need for criminal justice reform,” he said. “Catholic social teaching offers a perspective that insists on the inviolable dignity of every human individual. The sad fact of the current state of criminal justice in America is that — not by intent or design — it ends up treating people with less respect than their dignity deserves. That’s true for the streets to the courts to the corrections system.”

Donnelly said he has seen instances when people were not treated with respect even in courtrooms. As a judge, he said, he insists that everyone in his courtroom be listened to and treated with respect, although crowded dockets can make that difficult.

What he can’t do, he said, is control which cases come before him or change the punishment that the law requires.

As an example, he talked about working in traffic court as a new judge in the early 2000s. He would hear the cases of undocumented immigrants, who at that time were unable to get driver’s licenses in Illinois, charged with driving without a valid license. Under the law, he had to sentence them to time in Cook County Jail.

“These were people driving to get to work or to take care of their kids,” Donnelly said. “The punishment was disproportionate to the crime.”

He arranged for Cardinal Francis George to visit some of those inmates in the jail and Catholic immigration reform advocates joined others in successfully pushing for a law allowing undocumented immigrants to receive provisional driver’s licenses.

Criminal justice also falls more harshly on people of color, Donnelly said.

Most people agree that “there is a problem with systemic racism in our criminal justice system. Whether on the left or the right, there’s an acknowledgment that something has to change,” he said.

Racism is a problem, agreed MaryClare Birmingham, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Kolbe House Jail Ministry.

Kolbe House ministers to all people affected by the criminal justice system, including prison and jail inmates, their families, and those released from correctional facilities.

“The criminal justice system is broken for everybody,” Birmingham said. “One major issue that is very apparent is why are people of color brought to the criminal justice system so much more often than others? It affects certain groups so disproportionately, and why is that?  The injustice of that disparity must be addressed.”

“But we must recognize our system does not uphold the dignity of any human person, whatever their race. Systemic racism is one aspect that causes lasting harm, but that’s not the only aspect. Another aspect is a punitive view of criminal justice rather a restorative view. Our punitive system provides no way for people to atone for the harm done, no path to heal the wounds.  Accountability never comes to an end. People can’t earn restitution by serving their sentences.  Instead we affix labels to them, like felon or sex offender, and those labels become determinative for the rest of their lives.”

All of us in the community have to consider our tendencies to demand an emphasis on punishment instead of an emphasis on healing and restoration, she said.

“Our human community is very vulnerable to the emotions of fear and anger,” Birmingham said. “When harm is done, people are grievously wounded, individuals are wounded, families are wounded, communities are wounded by the crime. Our responses when we are wounded are visceral and emotional. Those powerful feelings can inform all our behaviors. Criminal Justice policies and laws written from emotion abandon principles and thoughtful reflection as the right basis for policies and laws.”

The Catholic Criminal Justice Reform Network brings together people who have different understandings and experiences of the criminal justice system to think and discuss how to move forward.

“Think tanks like this allow us to examine the issues thoughtfully and not emotionally,” Birmingham said. “How can we uphold the dignity of the human person while holding them accountable? How can we assure the common good of public safety? How do we respond when someone fails in living up to their responsibilities? This network will help identify an alternative vision for our system, a vision that would be consistent with the Gospel.”

“We need more than just talk about these issues,” Donnelly said. “We need action. What are the structural things you can do? What can individuals do?”

After all, Donnelly said, the Gospel calls for each person to both be Christ to and see Christ in those whom they encounter.

“How do you be a police officer who’s arresting somebody, how do you be Christ to that person?” he said. “How do you see Christ in that person? If you’re a judge, how do you sentence someone to jail time or prison time and be Christ to that person and see Christ in that person?”

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