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Editorial | Be tough, smart on crime

Regarding criminal justice, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that “punishment does not serve merely the purpose of defending the public order and guaranteeing the safety of persons; it becomes as well an instrument for the correction of the offender.”

There is a twofold purpose here, the document published in 2004 at the request of St. John Paul II states: “On the one hand, encouraging the re-insertion of the condemned person into society; on the other, fostering a justice that reconciles, a justice capable of restoring harmony in social relationships disrupted by the criminal act committed.”

That “correction of the offender” and “restoring harmony” is what treatment courts in the various counties of the Archdiocese of St. Louis are achieving, and we must remain vigilant to ensure that these courts receive proper funding and support from legislators and public officials. This week’s Review details just one of the courts, in St. Louis County, but its successes are repeated elsewhere.

Regarding drug courts, the Missouri Association of Treatment Court Professionals points out that two-thirds of all adult arrestees and more than half of juvenile arrestees test positive for illicit drugs at arrest. The national recidivism rate for drug offenses is nearly 67 percent. Up to 80 percent of child abuse and neglect cases and nearly 50 percent of domestic violence cases are substance-abuse related.

Drug courts, the association states, combine efforts of justice and treatment professionals to intervene and break the cycle of substance abuse, addiction, crime, delinquency and child maltreatment. It’s accomplished through an intensive regimen of substance abuse treatment, case management, drug testing, supervision and monitoring, and immediate sanctions and incentives while reporting to regularly scheduled status hearings before a judge with expertise in the drug court model. In addition, drug courts increase the probability of participants’ success by providing ancillary services such as mental health treatment, trauma and family therapy, and job skills training.

The association highlights studies by the Treatment Research Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University and the U.S. Government Accountability Office that show adult drug court programs substantially reduce crime by lowering re-arrest and conviction rates among drug court graduates.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a background paper on criminal justice, states that a Catholic approach to criminal and restorative justice recognizes that the dignity of the human person applies to both victims of crime and those who have committed harm.

“Justice includes more than punishment,” the statement explains. “It must include mercy and restoration. A simplistic punitive approach to justice can leave victims of crime with feelings of neglect, abandonment and anger making reconciliation and healing difficult. A restorative justice approach is more comprehensive and addresses the needs of victims, the community and those responsible for causing harm through healing, education, rehabilitation and community support.”

Missouri is on the right track regarding treatment courts. Gov. Mike Parson and our state supreme court justices have spoken on treatment courts’ importance. In a state of the judiciary address in January, Justice Zel M. Fischer said that help is needed in funding the vital services treatment courts can provide. He added that “for many nonviolent offenders, we have failed to address their underlying issues of substance abuse and mental illness. Let’s save our prisons for those we are afraid of, not just mad at.”

We must continue to support that funding and commitment so, as Justice Fischer said, “being tough on crime is not necessarily being smart on crime.”

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