Balance those scales of justice

May 8, 2006

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 402-405

Backlash! Punishment for criminal activity is one of the most emotion-charged issues in the public sphere. The public is not deeply interested in the intricacies of the criminal justice system.

But if it sees someone guilty of a horrendous crime treated leniently, it will react with passion.

Just ask Michael Dukakis. Dukakis was a former governor of Massachusetts who, in the summer of 1988, was well on his way to becoming president of the United States. But Republican focus groups found that Dukakis was vulnerable on the issue of criminal justice. He had approved a policy of allowing weekend "furloughs" to prison inmates, including first-degree murderers.


One of those murderers, Willie Horton, raped and assaulted a terrified couple in Maryland while on his furlough. For weeks Dukakis' Republican opponents exploited the Horton case. Horton became the most famous criminal in the United States – a symbol of the "liberal" justice system gone wrong.

In July, Dukakis was 17 points ahead of George Bush Sr. in the polls; in November, Bush won by eight points. More than anything else, it was the prison furlough issue that sunk Dukakis' ship.

The Catholic Church's position on punishment for crimes is straightforward. Just punishment will deter criminals from performing further crimes and provide them with an opportunity to reform. The purpose of punishment is not revenge, but prevention.


Punishment also restores justice. Philosopher and theologian Germain Grisez argues that when criminals "seize more than their fair share of the liberty to do as one pleases," it is only fitting that they "be deprived of some of the liberty to do as one pleases" (Living a Christian Life, p. 891). Taking away the liberty of convicted criminals restores balance.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church describes this as "repair(ing), through the penal system, the disorder created by criminal activity" (n. 402).

Punishment, however, must always respect the human dignity of those who are incarcerated. Often prison conditions are horrific and are schools for crime. The Compendium opposes all use of torture and the use of detention in order to elicit evidence for a trial. Justice should be done swiftly - long delays in bringing the accused to court or in the trial itself are injustices.

- Design Pics photo

Taking away the liberty of convicted criminals helps restore balance.

The Church opposes the death penalty. "Cases in which it is absolutely necessary to execute the offender are very rare, if not practically non-existent" (n. 405). Much better are "bloodless methods of deterrence and punishment."

The Compendium does not deal with the issues of criminal responsibility and the social conditions that give rise to crime. Throughout the world, it is people raised in poverty who make up the bulk of prison inmates. In Western Canada, Aboriginal people fill our prisons, even though they are a small percentage of the total population.

Many people rightly argue that social conditions may predispose one to a life of crime. Some argue that the crimes of the middle class go unpunished or that there is a bias in the justice system to punish those crimes lightly. This is more dubious, although to the extent that there is such bias, it needs to be corrected. Legal aid helps people with few resources acquire at least basic legal counsel.

But although poverty and broken families may predispose one to criminal activity, these should not generally be seen as the sole determining factor for a crime. To do so would be to deny the dignity of the human person as one who freely makes decisions about his or her life.

It is because people are self-determining agents that punishment is a fitting recompense for crime. If people's actions were solely determined by their background, they would have no responsibility. Punishment would be an injustice.


A balanced response is needed. People need to be held responsible for their actions. The social conditions that are a breeding ground for crime also need to be combatted. As a society, we are often more eager to do the former than the latter.

Still, when people feel that punishment for crimes is not adequate, there will be a backlash. People will demand harsher punishment.

There is no magic scale to determine what is adequate recompense for any crime. But in order to avoid a backlash, those with responsibility in the justice system always need to be sensitive to the temper of public feeling.