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Criminal Justice

"Mercy reminds us that reintegration does not begin here within these walls; rather it begins before, it begins 'outside,' in the streets of the city. Reintegration or rehabilitation begins by creating a system which we could call social health, that is, a society which seeks not to cause sickness, polluting relationships in neighborhoods, schools, town squares, the streets, homes and in the whole of the social spectrum." (Pope Francis, Penitentiary, 2/17/16) 

The Catholic community perspective on criminal justice policy comes from a tradition nurtured by mercy and forgiveness.  In "Testimony on Criminal Justice Reform," the USCCB urges us to repair our broken system: sentencing reform, countering recidivism, and promoting justice and restoration.  See resources below to deepen your understanding of such topics as Restorative Justice and Prison Privatization.

Testimony on Criminal Justice Reform, USCCB, 2015

The Catholic Bishops of the South: A Series of Eight Pastoral Letters on Criminal Justice

  1. Challenges for the Criminal Justice Process in the South
  2. Wardens from Wall Street: Prison Privatization
  3. "Suffer the Little Children..." Juvenile Justice in the South
  4. "I have come to heal..." Restorative Justice
  5. Prison Conditions
  6. Post Release from Prison
  7. Women in Prison
  8. A Call to Action

Let Justice and Mercy Meet: Crime, Punishment and the Common Good,
A Statement of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002.

Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, Statement of the Catholic Bishops of the United States, November 2000





Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised and updated edition. London: Penguin Books, 2019.

Bauer, Shane. American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment. New York: Penguin Press, 2018.

Bazelon, Lara. Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction. Boston: Beacon Press.

Blackard, Kirk. Restoring Peace: Using Lessons From Prison to Mend Broken Relationships. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford, 2019.

Boyle, Greg. Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. First Simon & Schuster paperback edition. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2019.

Conway, Trudy D.,, David Matzko McCarthy, and Vicki Schieber. Redemption and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective On Restorative Justice. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press.

Hallett, Michael A. Private Prisons in America: A Critical Race Perspective. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Herivel, Tara., and Paul Wright. Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money From Mass Incarceration. New York: New Press: Distributed by W.W. Norton, 2007.

Le Vay, Julian. Competition for Prisons: Public or Private? Bristol: Policy Press, 2016.

Morneau, Caitlin. Harm, Healing, and Human Dignity: A Catholic Encounter with Restorative Justice. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2019.

Price, Byron Eugene., and J. Morris. Prison Privatization: The Many Facets of a Controversial Industry. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger, 2012.

Recinella, Dale S. When We Visit Jesus in Prison: A Guide for Catholic Ministry. Chicago, IL: ACTA Publications.

Shichor, David. Punishment for Profit: Private Prisons/public Concerns. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1995.

Wallace, Misty,, Keith Blackburn, and Kirk Blackard. Face to Face: Our Story of Crime, Repentance, and Forgiveness. [Houston, TX]: Bridges to Life Books.

Zehr, Howard. Changing Lenses: Restorative Justice for Our Times. Twenty-fifth anniversary edition. Harrisonburg, Virginia ; Kitchener, Ontario: Herald Press.



Cassidy, R. Michael. "Catholic Social Thought and Criminal Justice Reform." Journal of Catholic Social Thought 15, no. 2 (2018): 261-274.

Coppola, Elizabeth. "Catholic Social Thought and Criminal Justice." Journal of Catholic Social Thought 8, no. 1 (2011): 1-5.

DiIulio, John J. "Catholic Social Teaching, Racial Reconciliation, and Criminal Justice." Journal of Catholic Social Thought 3, no. 1 (2006): 121-136.

DeFina, Robert. "Engaging the U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral On Crime and Criminal Justice: From Atomism to Community Justice." Journal of Catholic Social Thought 8, no. 1 (2011): 77-91.

Saulnier, Alana. "Restorative Justice: Underlying Mechanisms and Future Directions." New Criminal Law Review 18, no. 4 (2015): 510-536.

Skotnicki, Andrew. Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publ, 2019.

Kerley, Kent R. "Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church." International Criminal Justice Review 19, no. 3 (2009): 371.

Levad, Amy. ""I Was in Prison and You Visited Me": A Sacramental Approach to Rehabilitative and Restorative Criminal Justice." Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 31, no. 2 (2011): 93-112.

Misleh, Daniel J. "Emerging Issues: The Faith Communities and the Criminal Justice System." Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought 23, no. 1-2 (2004): 111-131.


American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that promotes lasting peace with justice, as a practical expression of faith in action.

Catholic Mobilizing Network, Promoting Restorative Justice

Prison Fellowship International

Grassroots Leadership, works for a more just society where prison profiteering, mass incarceration, deportation and criminalization are things of the past

Prison Fellowship, the nation's largest nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families, and a leading advocate for justice reform

Restore Justice, outreach of the California Catholic Conference

Southern Center for Human Rights, working for equality, justice, and dignity in our criminal justice system




2258: "Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being."56


The witness of sacred history

2259: In the account of Abel's murder by his brother Cain,57 Scripture reveals the presence of anger and envy in man, consequences of original sin, from the beginning of human history. Man has become the enemy of his fellow man. God declares the wickedness of this fratricide: "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand."58

2260: The covenant between God and mankind is interwoven with reminders of God's gift of human life and man's murderous violence:

For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning. . . . Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.59

The Old Testament always considered blood a sacred sign of life.60 This teaching remains necessary for all time.

2261: Scripture specifies the prohibition contained in the fifth commandment: "Do not slay the innocent and the righteous."61 The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator. The law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere.

2262: In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord recalls the commandment, "You shall not kill,"62 and adds to it the proscription of anger, hatred, and vengeance. Going further, Christ asks his disciples to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies.63 He did not defend himself and told Peter to leave his sword in its sheath.64

Legitimate defense

2263: The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. "The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one's own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not."65

2264: Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one's own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:

If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one's own life than of another's.66

2265: Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

2266: The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.67

2267: Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."68