(Update June 2005)
On October 30, 2004, the President signed into law S. 1194, the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2003. The Act was introduced by Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) and represents a good beginning towards ensuring that mentally ill offenders receive the treatment they need in order to successfully re-enter society. S. 1194 authorizes grants that will be awarded to eligible States, local governments, and organizations in order to plan and implement programs that: (1) ensure access to mental health and other treatment services for mentally ill adults or juveniles; and (2) are overseen cooperatively by a criminal justice agency, juvenile justice agency, or mental health court and a mental health agency (collaboration programs). This was an important victory for criminal justice reform advocates. The efforts of many groups including the Catholic community are to be credited for its passage.
On October 12, 2004, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing on bill called the Second Chance Act of 2004. The Act was introduced by a bi-partisan group of Representatives during the summer and attempted to address some of the many issues facing the nearly 650,000 people released from jails and prisons nationwide each year. The main areas of focus within the bill were jobs, housing, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and strengthening families. While the Subcommittee did not attempt to vote on the legislation, the end of the year Hearing gave voice to the concerns surrounding re-entry issues and will hopefully give momentum for legislative action in this Congress. The original co-sponsors of the Second Chance Act [Representatives Rob Portman (R-OH) and Danny Davis (D-IL), and Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Joseph Biden (D-DE)] plan to re-introduce the bill this month. USCCB and CCUSA staff are meeting with co-sponsors staff to share our priorities on criminal justice reform. On July 12, 2004, Cardinal McCarrick, Chairman of the Domestic Policy Committee wrote to members of the House urging their support of the Second Chance Act.
In the 2000 criminal justice statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, the bishops called for the redirection of public resources towards more effective programs designed to rehabilitate and reintegrate ex-offenders back into society. We call upon government to redirect the vast amount of public resources away from building more and more prisons and toward better and more effective programs aimed at crime prevention, rehabilitation, education efforts, substance abuse treatment, and programs of probation, parole, and reintegration.
Cardinal McCarrick, in his On July 12, 2004, letter said, As a Church, we actively support the communitys right to establish and enforce laws that protect people and advance the common good. However, our faith teaches us that both victims and offenders are children of God so we call for justice not vengeance. Justice, therefore, demands that punishment must have two clear purposes: protecting society and rehabilitating those who violate the laws.
On April 29, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) sent a letter to the House Judiciary Chairman and members of the Judiciary Committee urging them to support passage of H.R. 1704, the Second Chance Act of 2005. The Act, which the USCCB and CCUSA staff had been working on for months, was introduced on April 19, by a bipartisan group of Representatives, the lead sponsors are Rob Portman (R-OH) and Danny Davis (D-IL). The Act begins to address some of the many issues facing the more than 600,000 men and women who re-enter society each year from federal and state prisons, as well as local jails. The Second Chance Act of 2005 will help to reduce recidivism rates by:
- Providing grants to states and local governments to develop or adopt procedures to ensure that dangerous felons are not released from prison prematurely.
- Providing grants to nonprofit organizations for mentoring adult offenders or providing transitional services for re-integration into the community.
- Creating a federal interagency taskforce to identify programs and resources on re-entry, and ways to better collaborate; develop interagency initiatives and a national re-entry research agenda; review and report to Congress on the federal barriers that exist to successful re-entry with recommendations.
- Establishing a national resource center for states, local governments, service providers, faith-based organizations, and corrections and community organizations to collect and disseminate best practices and provide training and support around reentry.
- Providing grants to states and local governments that may be used to expand family-based treatment centers that offer family-based comprehensive treatment services for parents and their children as a complete family unit.
On Wednesday, May 11, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 279 to 144 and passed HR 1279, the Gang Deterrence and Community Protection Act of 2005, (the Gang Bill). On Thursday, May 5, the USCCB and CCUSA sent a letter to the entire House asking members to oppose provisions in the bill that would expand the use of the death penalty, treat juveniles as adults and impose mandatory minimum sentences. What the Gang Bill Will Do:
- Imposition of the Death Penalty: the bill would create several new death-eligible offenses and increase the penalty for some existing crimes to death.
- Transfer to the Adult Criminal System: the bill would result in the expanded "transfer" or "waiver" of youth to the adult criminal system and/or placing an additional number of youth in adult correctional facilities.
- Expand Mandatory Minimums: the bill expands mandatory minimum sentences for a broad category of offenses that are deemed gang crime. In the Gang Bill, the mandatory minimum sentences for gang related crimes range from five to thirty years.
- On the Death Penalty: The bishops of the United States oppose the use of the death penalty. Catholic teaching on capital punishment is clear, If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person (Catechism of the Catholic Church).
- On Transfering Juveniles to the Adult Criminal Justice System: While there is no question that violent and dangerous youth need to be confined for their safety and that of society, the bishops do not support provisions that treat children as though they are equal to adults. Placing children in adult jails is a sign of failure, not a solution. (Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, November 15, 2000)
- On Mandatory Minimums: Although the offenses are serious and individuals who are convicted ought to be properly held accountable, mandatory sentencing formulations could prevent judges from properly assessing an individuals culpability during the crime or from other factors that have bearing on recidivism. This can sometimes result in harsh and inappropriate sentences. We must renew our efforts to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. Therefore, we do not support mandatory sentencing that replaces judges' assessments with rigid formulations. (Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, November 15, 2000).
What You Can Do
During his State of the Union Address in 2004, the President stated that helping ex-offenders successfully re-enter society had to be a priority for our society. Please call your Senators and Representative and ask them to support the Second Chance Act so that we can reduce recidivism by helping men and women successfully reintegrate into their communities. Call the Capitol switchboard, (202) 224-3121.
For Further Information:
Contact Andy Rivas at 202-541-3190; (fax) 202-541-3339; firstname.lastname@example.org.