Andrew Skotnicki. Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church

Andrew Skotnicki. Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2008.

Andrew Skotnicki sets out a Catholic theory of criminal justice that is humane and redemptive. He argues that the fundamental issue underlying criminal justice practices is whether or not Christ is seen in the criminal.  If he is not, abuses are inevitable.  If he is, we have hope that the criminal justice process may be redemptive.

Catholic approaches to criminal justice need to be grounded in a Catholic anthropology that understands each human being to be of inestimable value—value that is not diminished even by criminal behavior. Punishment has traditionally been justified on two grounds that stand in tension with each other: (1) “that punishment by lawful authority is both just and necessary for those who have freely chosen to disrupt the harmony established within and intended by God for creation” and (2) “that punishment does not achieve its true meaning until it arises from within and is willed by the offender, that is, until it becomes self-punishment” (p. 35).  One way to characterize Skotnicki’s agenda in the book is a whole is that he seeks to hold these two points together.

In the fourth and longest chapter, “Prison as the Normative Means and Punishment,” Skotnicki tells the fascinating story of the origins of long-term imprisonment as a form of punishment in monastic prisons.  The justification for the monastic prisons was confidence in the redemptive possibilities of penance.  To reflect on one’s sins while spending time in isolation provided the path to acknowledgment of the sins, repentance, and reconciliation with God and the community.

Skotnicki concludes with an outline of what he calls “A Catholic Theory of Criminal Justice.”  Here he catches up his historical analysis, his theological commitments, and his (brief) critique of present practices in our society.  The goal of criminal justice should center on wholeness—for society, for victims, and for offenders.  Imprisonment plays in important role in this quest for wholeness, both by honoring justice and order and by playing a crucial role in “atonement” (the reconciling of the offender with God and with the human community).  Perhaps the most distinctive element of Skotnicki’s theory lies in his strong emphasis on the efficacy of confinement as a means of bringing about repentance.

Skotnicki’s reminder that when offenders are not treated as full human beings “all hell breaks loose” continues to be timely and needed. Some questions remain, though.

(1) Despite the seriousness of this topic and Skotnicki’s obviously deep concern that our society’s criminal justice practices turn away from the abyss of unrestrained and dehumanizing retribution, the book’s tone reflects a surprising lack of urgency.  Skotnicki doesn’t engage in any detail the absolute crisis in our criminal justice system where the “cure” of an utterly heartless lock-’em-up without mercy approach to crime has greatly deepened the “disease” of violence and alienation in our society.  His theory, attractive as it may be, would gain in credibility and relevance were it formulated with more overt attention to our social context.

(2) I appreciate Skotnicki’s attempt to hold together the emphases on seeing Christ in the prisoner and the validity of autonomous retributive justice.  By insisting on the Christ-presence (and with it, the absolute value of reconciliation and healing of offenders), Skotnicki offers an important challenge to punitive practices that rely only on the goods of protecting order and the moral universe’s balance of justice.

However, might this attempt still not be doomed to an inevitable instability?  The two sides of this tension come from dramatically different (and perhaps irreconcilable) sources.  Jesus’ approach to “justice” and human wellbeing seems to reject the idea of autonomous justice.  For Jesus, all justice must serve healing—not stand as an independent principle.  When love and justice are separated, “justice” easily becomes co-opted, as in our current crisis.

(3) Skotnicki’s account of the origins of the practice of long-term imprisonment and the isolation of prisoners in monastic practices is fascinating and important.  This story certainly underwrites his commitment to the on-going possibility that confinement may (should) serve the healing of the offender.  However, his case is not strengthened by his failure to consider how the practice of seeking repentance through isolation has evolved to become perhaps the most effective means of punishment and torture.  As the colonial-era Quakers who led prison reform in the United States with an emphasis on isolation of the prisoner discovered to their horror, such isolation’s main effect is not to lead to repentance but to insanity.

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