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Criminal Justice



Mass Incarceration: The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but nearly a quarter of all the world’s prisoners. In 1973, federal and state prisons in the United States held 200,000 adults. In 2009, that number was 1.5 million, plus 700,000 serving time in local jails, for a total of 2.23 million. Nearly 1 in 100 adults in the United States is in prison or jail, the highest incarceration rate on Earth. This is largely the result of criminal justice policies such as mandatory minimum prison sentences for violent and drug crimes.1

Death Penalty: The United States is an exception among Western industrialized nations for its use of the death penalty. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, 1,412 people have been executed in the United States. In 2014, 35 people were executed in the United States. The year with the highest number of executions in the United States was 1999, with 98 executions.2  Since 2007, seven U.S. states have abolished the death penalty, bringing the total number of states to outlaw the practice to 19 out of 50. Death sentences in the United States are at their lowest since 1976.

Church Teaching

The U.S. Bishops have also been calling for restorative justice. In their 2000 pastoral statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, the bishops stated, “Just as God never abandons us, so too we must be in covenant with one another. We are all sinners, and our response to sin and failure should not be abandonment and despair, but rather justice, contrition, reparation, and return or reintegration of all into the community.”

In 2005, the U.S. bishops launched a campaign to end the death penalty and urged people in a pastoral letter to work to build “a culture of life in which our nation will no longer try to teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill. This cycle of violence diminishes all of us.”

The bishops have consistently pointed out the injustice implicit in the fact that both mass incarceration and the death penalty disproportionately affect low income and minority communities.

Policy Recommendations

In addition to consistently advocating for the abolition of the death penalty, the U.S. bishops have repeatedly voiced support for current legislation that would provide modest improvements to the U.S. criminal justice system:

  • Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2013 (S. 1690, H.R. 3465): Authorizes funding for state and federal programs that help people leaving prison reintegrate back into their communities so that they do not reoffend. Programs focusing on education, literacy, job-placement, substance abuse treatment and other goals, help people be productive members of society.
  • Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410, H.R. 3382): Proposes modest but important reforms to mandatory minimum sentences by expanding current judicial sentencing options related to non-violent drug offenses. This bill would permit reductions in mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes and allows crack cocaine offenders to seek lighter sentences under the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act.

 1. "The meteoric, costly and unprecedented rise of incarceration in America," The Washington Post, April 30, 2014, reporting on "The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences," National Research Council, 2014.

2.  Death Penalty Information Center

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