In November, the U.S. Catholic Bishops released a major report on the nation's crime problem, "Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice." Any public statement that the bishops make gets lots of attention, and this one garnered favorable notice from the New York Times and other major papers. But the document is deeply flawed in its understanding of why crime occurs and what policymakers should do about it.
The bishops begin by asserting that the national debate on crime has become too simplistic, ignoring the "complex" causes of crime: "extreme poverty, discrimination, and racism." To address those causes, the bishops recommend policies that ensure jobs, affordable housing, and ample health services for poor, largely minority, communities.
This kind of thinking sent America's crime rate rocketing upward in the wake of the sixties cultural revolution. To place the blame for crime on poverty and racism suggests that raping, murdering, and thieving are somehow understandable, even excusable, because society isn't perfectly just. It also devalues the achievement of the majority of poor minority kids, who struggle to live decent, law-abiding lives. By reburnishing this hoary argument, the bishops are simply encouraging criminality.
Second: the bishops decry the "astounding rate of incarceration" in America, pointing out that it's six to 12 times higher than that of other Western nations. They find the emergence of "supermax" prisons and harsh "zero tolerance" polices for nonviolent drug offenders profoundly troubling. They recommend slashing America's imprisonment rate through more rehab programs and community-based sentencing alternatives to prison, asserting that locking up so many malefactors doesn't improve public safety.
Unfortunately, criminologists have shown that putting more bad guys behind bars has made Americans more secure, especially those living in cities. Were the jails and prisons to open, flooding borderline neighborhoods with the minor offenders now in jail on various drug-related charges, things could go to ruin in a hurry—unless the community-based sentencing alternatives that the bishops recommend had a harsh backup: screw up, and it's back to the slammer for good. The bishops pay lip service to the idea of "broken windows" policing—the theory that, if law enforcement ignores low-level infractions like petty open-air drug deals, pretty soon the real bad guys get the idea that the social order has collapsed, emboldening them to commit more serious crimes; but in the end, they don't seem to get it.
Finally, and most disturbingly, the bishops contend that the nation doesn't sufficiently acknowledge that bad guys are human beings, too. Almost every time the bishops' statement mentions crime victims, it immediately mentions the criminal as deserving equal sympathy. "Both the most wounded victim and the most callous criminal retain their humanity," the bishops say, adding that "both victims and perpetrators of crime are children of God." This rhetorical strategy risks transforming the rapist and the murderer into victims morally indistinguishable from the raped and the murdered—which is to make moral judgment meaningless and thus squander the Catholic Church's most powerful incentive for moral behavior.
Bishops were not always so mystified about how to deal with crime and disorder. Without going back to Saint Augustine, think only of New York's archbishop John Hughes, whose willingness to attack what he called the sinful behavior of the immigrant Irish in the second half of the nineteenth century was a huge spur to their uplift. Today's bishops, still drawing on the nonjudgmental antinomianism of the sixties, have traveled far from Hughes's robust, faith-filled morality.