‘Vision statement’ shares Catholic teaching on criminal justice laws and policies, including sentencing, parole and reentry

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Kolbe House Jail Ministry commemorated the beginning of Holy Week with a Palm Sunday prayer walk around Cook County Jail on April 10, 2022. Before the walk, participants painted rocks with messages of peace. During the 2-mile walk, attendees reflected on Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and his own arrest and detention, as a call to unite in our commitment to defend the human dignity of those incarcerated and promote reconciliation and healing for all affected by the criminal justice system. (Karen Callaway/ Chicago Catholic)

The Catholic Conference of Illinois has released “A Catholic Vision for Restorative Justice in Illinois,” a document intended to educate everyone from lawmakers to Catholics in the pews and the bishops themselves what the Gospel calls for when it comes to justice.

The vision statement was produced over a couple of years by the conference’s jail and prison ministry committee, made up of people who work in those ministries in Illinois’ six dioceses, said Marilou Gervacio, director of social services/social justice for the Catholic Conference of Illinois, the public policy arm of the church in this state.

The effort started at the direction of the bishops who lead Illinois’ dioceses, she said.

“We’re always asked about criminal justice bills on sentencing and parole and reentry,” Gervacio said. “The bishops directed us to look at what the church says about these issues. They wanted us to create kind of a guiding document, to help the bishops and all Catholics to understand what the church teaches about these issues.”

Emily Cortina, director of outreach and formation at Kolbe House, the archdiocese’s jail ministry, said understanding restorative justice requires a change in perspective about what the justice system is for.

“It shifts the mindset that’s driving the justice system from ‘What crime was committed and how will the offender be punished?’ to ‘What harm was caused and how can that harm be healed?’” said Cortina, who was among the document’s authors.

“Restorative justice is a set of principles for dealing with the harm of crime or any way we’ve harmed each other that is embodying the vision of justice that Jesus offered,” said MaryClare Birmingham, director of Kolbe House. “It’s justice including accountability, mercy and healing all together. It ends with the restoration of the individual to the community.

“Our current justice system has punishment or retribution, but then it stops there. There’s accountability and punishment, but there’s no opportunity to make amends, there’s no opportunity to address the issues underlying the crime, and there’s no way forward, to go from harm to how that can be addressed and healed, and how we can be reconciled to each other.”

It’s not a new topic for the church; the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice” in 2000.

Restorative justice brings communities into the process, Cortina said. That’s especially important for communities of color, which are most affected by both crime and incarceration.

The vision statement highlights the structure of incarceration in Illinois as well. About half the people in the Illinois prison population come from Cook and Lake counties, which make up the Archdiocese of Chicago, Birmingham said. Those counties are home to just under half the population of Illinois, according to census data.

But, while Cook and Lake counties have the largest single-site jail in the United States and various detention centers, they have no state or federal prisons. Those are concentrated in the southern and western areas of the state, with 13 prisons in the Diocese of Belleville and 11 in the Diocese of Peoria.

That means someone from Chicago could be held before trial in Cook County Jail, sent downstate to serve a prison term, then be released and re-enter the community in Chicago.

That in itself can be a barrier to restorative justice because inmates are isolated from their communities, and often families don’t have the resources to drive several hours to visit them on a regular basis, she said.

While the diocesan jail and prison ministries communicate and work together, they would need much more in the way of resources to provide seamless support across diocesan lines, Cortina said.

Cortina said that in recent years, especially since the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, more archdiocesan parishes have expressed interest in learning about restorative justice and in what they can do for people who are incarcerated.

She recalled collections Kolbe House sponsored during the COVID-19 pandemic of soap and washcloths for inmates.

“A lot of people were surprised that the prisons didn’t provide soap so they could wash their hands,” she said. “And it is our job to be concerned about things like bars of soap, but it’s also our job to be concerned about the whole system at the same time.”

Birmingham said now was an opportune time to release the document because of ongoing public discourse about crime. She noted, too, that restorative justice is not “a pie-in-the-sky theoretical idea.” It’s being used for some crimes in parts of Chicago, as well as in many non-criminal justice organizations and in countries that suffered from decades of conflict, such as Northern Ireland and South Africa.

“That’s why our work with the church and this statement are so important,” Birmingham said. “It’s the work of all of us in the community to have that mind shift that everybody mentions. We want to move beyond the polarity of who’s soft on crime and who’s hard on crime, and those fallacies that lead to that can be the easy way out.”

Read the document at



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