Catholic Day at Capitol focuses on criminal justice

By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – About 60 people from across the diocese came together Wednesday, Feb. 19, to talk about crime, punishment and healing at the 2014 Catholic Day at the Capitol sponsored by the Catholic Charities Poverty Task Force. The task force selected House Bill 585 (HB-585) as its main focus this year.
HB-585 is a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill addressing minimum sentencing, drug treatment and other approaches to redress crime, consider victims’ rights, rehabilitate offenders and heal the community. The day started with a pair of keynote speakers, Father Fred Kammer, SJ, of the Jesuit Social Research Institute based at Loyola University, New Orleans and Deacon Allen Stevens, a community organizer and advocate from New Orleans St. Peter Claver Parish. Attendees left with a packet of information and talking points about the issues.

Father Kammer explained what Catholic social teaching says about crime, specifically about embracing a system of restorative justice in which victims, offenders, the families of both and whole communities are part of the process of restoring the common good. “Attention must be paid to victims healing and recovery, but we can’t give in to punitive policies,” he said. He also pointed out statistics that indicate states in the Gulf South, especially Louisiana and Mississippi, lead the nation in incarceration, but have seen diminishing returns on those policies.

He urges communities to include drug treatment programs in jails and communities, end minimum sentencing and ‘three-strikes’ policies, address racism in both the criminal justice system and society at large and concentrate on building strong family structures, embrace community policing methods, challenge the culture of violence and offer rehabilitation to all offenders.

Deacon Stevens works with the Micah Project, a faith-based organization established by clergy in New Orleans to think of new and innovative solutions to problems in that city. He said they take a real grass-roots approach, asking community members what “keeps them up at night,” and building solutions from there. He said education and incarceration were constant themes in this effort. He pointed out that although drug use is consistent across all demographic groups, African Americans in Louisiana are three times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than their counterparts. Incarceration rates in New Orleans are among the highest in the nation, but, according to Deacon Stevens, locking up all those people is not helping address the root issues of crime. He urged attendees to join in the process of speaking up for reform, but warned them to be patient. “The effort of organizing is slow and arduous, you have to have the patience of Job,” he said,
Andre de Gruy, a member of the Criminal Justice Task Force, spoke about the specific bill working its way through the legislature. The 205-page bill has already been approved by the house, but de Gruy pointed out it is always good to contact legislators to let them know what issues are important to voters and thank legislators for their support.

The bill has passed out of committee and now faces a March 12 deadline for action.
Leslie Lee, a state defender who attended the day said this is not a Republican or Democratic issue, its an issue that impacts everyone. She has seen both sides of this debate, having been a prosecutor. She now works on a reintegration task force to help those getting out of jail get back to productive lives.

“We need to distinguish between the people we are scared of and the people we are mad at,” she explained. Violent, repeat offenders do not need to be treated in the same way as all offenders. She said in her work she sees many people with mental health issues, addiction and other challenges who could be helped back into society with rehabilitation, but would not benefit from incarceration with no treatment.

After Mass celebrated by Bishops Joseph Kopacz of Jackson and Roger Morin  of Biloxi and lunch the group gathered on the steps at the capitol for a press conference.
Advocates explained that Catholics can still contact their lawmakers to support HB-585. In fact, meeting with lawmakers while they are in their home disctricts might be a better way to get their attention.

To get a copy of the talking points and information on Catholic social teaching on criminal justice, email Monique Davis at