Beyond the Realms of Justice

The purpose of this essay is to explore what light the deeper truths of our faith can shed on the criminal justice system. The light of faith illuminates reality so we can see all things through the life, death, and resurrection of our divine Savior. The literature is vast across the three main areas of the criminal justice system — law enforcement, the judicial process, and corrections encompassing prison and probation. The focus of this essay will primarily be on the area of corrections. Beyond its scope is an exploration into the over-representation of black and ethnic minorities within prisons in particular and the criminal justice system in general.

“For cut off from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5)

The criminal justice system highlights or intensifies our awareness of injustice, with this innate ability to sense injustice pointing to our latent sense of perfect justice that we hold in the depths of our soul. As the world in general and the criminal justice system in particular has many examples of injustice, our sense of perfect justice must come from within ourselves.1 Our perfect sense of justice points to the heavenly kingdom of our infinitely just and loving God.

It is surprising on one level that, in light of the kingdom to come, we should expect a system such as the criminal justice system to evidence anything other than injustice, whether it’s the victims of crime, the community, or the perpetrators themselves. The disproportionate higher rates of imprisonment for African Americans in the U.S.A, Aboriginals in Australia, and Maori in New Zealand highlight a system that is flawed and riddled with failure. Every policy that is introduced, whether it is tougher sentences for repeat offenders, victim reparation initiatives, stricter parole conditions, or the increase in treatment programs for offenders in prison, all have the over-arching goal of improving our sense of justice. Yet despite the plethora of different initiatives that have been introduced around the world, the deep sense of injustice and failure remain as evidenced by the many books that are written that highlight this fact. Jesus’ powerful and startling words spring to mind, “for cut off from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). In this essay I attempt to show that if the deeper truths of divine revelation are not the foundation of all policy initiatives, then the criminal justice system will continue to be viewed as an unjust and failed system.

It is as if the criminal justice system magnifies or intensifies our latent awareness of perfect justice by the glaring injustices that riddle it. Aside from the lack of real justice for the victims, there is the universally high reoffending rates for prisoners released from prison. Statistics vary, but the pattern is consistent from one country to the next.

Is it really surprising, though? In reality, the university of crime increases offenders’ criminal intelligence and versatility. In addition, offenders are often released to the same environmental and social factors that led to their offense in the first place — antisocial peers, substance misuse, poor neighborhoods and unemployment. These conditions, like the prison environment, are not conducive to change. Someone enmeshed in a gang culture requires in reality a power much greater than anything offered on a purely human level. We expect a humanly developed system that places people with criminally inclined attitudes together in a confined space to break entrenched habits so that they lead a non-offending lifestyle on their release. Most offenders are trapped in an interior life that is shaped by their criminal activities, the people they associate with and the past hurts they harbor. Something radical has to invade their world to enable then to turn their lives around. This something radical is someone: God.

“I was in Prison and You Came to Me” (Mt 25:36)

Doesn’t it seem strange that in St. Matthew’s gospel we read in the final judgement scene the prisoner mentioned along with the naked, homeless, thirsty, stranger and the sick? The mercy of God is open and available to all, not just those who we perceive as more deserving like the homeless, sick, naked, stranger and the thirsty. The challenge open to each of us is to see Christ in the prisoner who has committed a serious crime.

Equally challenging is to understand that we ourselves, if born into different circumstances, could be “that person” behind bars. “There go I but for the grace of God”: a very familiar saying yet how difficult to truly comprehend? The abuse and trauma and as a consequence sinful life acted out for everyone to see and judge is the lot of many people in prison. This isn’t to condone their actions through making them a victim of their circumstances. Mercy and truth go hand in hand like faith and reason. In the conversation of Jesus with the adulteress, in not condemning her he offered his infinite mercy but also commanded her, “Go away, and from this moment sin no more” (John 8:11).

If someone is a victim of neglect and abuse in their childhood, the collective harm through a life of crime can outweigh in quantity the harm and trauma they themselves received. It’s difficult, let’s be honest, to feel the same level of sympathy for the dishonest heroin addict who has committed countless burglaries and thefts to support their habit, compared to someone who is hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless or a stranger. Yet in the gospel the prisoner is listed alongside all these people. Is it because some people suffer from miscarriages of justice? The legal system will always be imperfect because it resembles the imperfect humans who have designed it.

Christ challenges us to see him in the prisoner, yet he was pure and innocent – infinitely innocent. He proclaimed to the scribes and Pharisees, “In truth I tell you, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you” (Mt 21:31). Herein lies the key to unlocking the mystery of Christ’ words. The familiar saying “we are all sinners” can hide a more uncomfortable dimension that many of us can ignore. We can all have the Pharisee in us, where in the cloak of respectability we can commit sin without being noticed.

What separates us from the heroin addict who commits thefts and burglaries to support their habit is the list of crimes they have been convicted of, along with their illegal drug addiction. This person has broken the commandment, “thou shalt not steal.” Yet we can steal a work colleague’s reputation by gossiping about them and defaming their character. Words that we say may escalate and lead to all sorts of rumors which have an unforeseen harm on our work colleague’s emotional well-being.

Or take the senior manager in the office who is able to divert all blame and responsibility from themselves when things are not delivered, or if projects are delayed. By not facing or accepting his bad decisions and acknowledging how he blames others for his own failures, he is stealing unbeknown to himself the justice or goodness he owes his fellow workers, as well as God. Convicted crimes always equate to sins committed. However, the commission of sin, both open and hidden does not invariably equate with convicted offenses. My point is not to make the case for people to not be convicted of criminal offenses — the point is to show our similarity to all prisoners.

Mercy and Truth

The poison of sin dulls not only our conscience but our acute awareness of the choices we make. It is as if a gray and darkened veil is placed over our whole being with the effect being that we don’t perceive or see certain things. We may have 20/20 vision yet not see or perceive, and therefore understand the many choices we make which significantly impact on ourselves, others, and our relationship with God.

This vision is only truly restored through the Holy Spirit abiding intimately within the soul. Without the Holy Spirit we develop all kinds of psychological theories that seek to justify people’s actions through family, social and biological factors. This is not to deny that childhood trauma, peer influence and head injury significantly contribute to the choices a person makes in life. The person living a criminal lifestyle will be in a state of mortal sin and so not see and importantly appreciate the countless opportunities where people have offered them help. Their perception that they could have chosen differently will be dulled and their understanding that they could have broken the cycle of crime inhibited. It is only a repentant heart filled with the Holy Spirit that will be able to see and respond to these opportunities.

People who have had near death experiences (NDEs) experience both the infinite love of God as well as the absolute reality of their lives as viewed and seen by him. As described earlier mercy and truth go hand in hand like faith and reason. A significant aspect of NDEs is the person’s acute awareness of the choices they have made in their life. In their life review they see the many opportunities (graces) available to them and how if they had responded differently, they would have come closer to doing God’s will. In addition, a salient feature of NDEs is that the person vividly sees the ripple effect of their actions and how they have far-reaching consequences.2

It follows logically that the divine physician of souls, the author of our creation, should ideally form the foundation or building blocks of any treatment program. Understandably treatment programs are evaluated through the use of before and after measures to determine their effectiveness in achieving key goals. Beyond the research paradigm is the individual person and they will be anonymous, so to speak within statistical based studies that seek to find a causal link between for example, a treatment program and reduction in reoffending. The findings can only give statistical probabilities and will never be able to conclude what leads one person in particular to enter into a life of crime, or what specifically led them to change. This will be unique to them, just as in heaven only they will be able to occupy their place in God’s kingdom.

In research, the contributing factors which pre-dispose or significantly influence a person’s entry into a life of crime — head injury, poverty, unemployment, substance misuse, antisocial peers etc — are explored as they can be measured and defined. Ultimately, though, what causes a person to begin a life of crime is the free choices they make, and the many opportunities of grace they have missed through being in a state of mortal sin. It is impossible to measure the actual graces a person receives during their lifetime, or within a specific time period, as well as their response to the graces they receive. It is this dimension of reality that further highlights the limits of the scientific method.

“Crucify him! Crucify him!”

There is something peculiar about our human nature that from an early age we behave differently when we are around other people. How many parents hear their child being described as an angel and well-behaved at school, yet at home how different the experience can sometimes be! And how it all changes again in a group situation. This is such a challenge for the vast majority of offenders, where they invariably commit crimes with criminal peers directly, or are indirectly influenced by them. If we are all honest looking back at our lives, we wouldn’t have done some of the things we ended up doing if we hadn’t been in a group situation. The power of peer pressure is enormous, where to not lose face and respect within our peer group are significant forces.

It is an extraordinary paradox that the vast majority of people commit crimes do so through the influence of others, yet their soul will be judged individually when they die. Without doubt, the greatest crime ever committed was the crucifixion of our Savior. Yet he was crucified, spat upon and assaulted by a mob. Each person in that crowd who screamed “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Lk 23:31), would have been judged individually when they died, and not as a mob. Following Christ’ death, the tomb split, the sky darkened and spirits rose from the dead. The absolute clarity and evidence of Christ’ divinity could not be denied by the same crowd that screamed for his blood. And so, just as each gang member has the opportunity to reflect on their crime, so did each of the souls within the crowd who crucified Jesus have an opportunity to reflect and hopefully repent.

Hidden among the disorderly crowd who chaotically screamed for Jesus’ sentence of death by crucifixion were the orderly and organized masterminds of the crime — the scribes and Pharisees. What a challenge Jesus had on his hands in trying to convince them of their inner corruption. The same challenge in a different guise confronts the criminal justice system in bringing to justice the gang leaders, organized criminals and masterminds of criminal enterprises.

“He was a Murderer from the Start” (Jn 8:44)

The enormous challenge that the criminal justice system has to deal with is not only people who are not ready to change, and therefore accept the help or intervention which is offered to them, but significantly, and thankfully a smaller group of people, that have the capacity to hide their evil thoughts and intentions. The true nature of this group of people often only comes to light after the fact, so to speak. It is when they are in prison or after having been apprehended for multiple sexual or violent crimes and so receive a life sentence, that their true nature is known. The fact that they are able to deceive and manipulate others means that their web of lies and deceit enables them to be one step ahead of the criminal justice system.

The significance of our ability to choose a different path that is not inspired by the devil is an uncomfortable fact that is minimized or ignored through the exponential growth in research that seeks to find a biological cause for evil. Beneath the plethora of MRI and PET scans that examine the brain function of offenders, we are unable to understand the human person’s ability to make and be responsible for the choices they make. It is not only our choices, but also our conscience which enables us to understand deep down that our actions are wrong. I have explored this in more detail in a previous essay published in The Homiletic and Pastoral Review titled, “Psychopathy: A Deeper Reality revealed through Catholicism.”3

From the perspective of divine revelation, God wills “everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth” (Tim 2:11). The idea that people are born with a brain that wires then to commit evil and callous acts contradicts God’s loving providence. Again, this is not to deny the fact that many violent offenders are disadvantaged as a result of head injury and have a diminished ability in being able to regulate their emotions and behavior. While this is the case, they will always have the ability to reflect on their actions and so experience sincere remorse. What God expects of this person will be very different to another person bought up in a stable family, with no head injury or familial risk factors which pre-dispose them to enter into a violent and/or criminal lifestyle. This is the mystery of God’s providence and one that we will never fully understand until we enter his heavenly kingdom.

“You will not get out till you have paid the last penny” (Matt 5: 26)

At the final judgment God’s justice will be delivered to those who have failed to show charity to the least among us — the sin of omission. The greatest crime is to reject the merciful love of God and condemn oneself to hell. While this is the case on the supernatural level, the majority of offenders are convicted of crimes, not where they have failed to do something, or where they have rejected something, but in the majority of instances it is for actually doing something — i.e. committing violent acts, thefts, burglaries, dealing drugs, etc. Divine justice radically challenges our way of thinking and understanding.

Prison is often viewed as soft and the myth is that a comfortable prison is ineffective in reforming prisoners. The denial of freedom, and being forced to live in close quarters with other people who often seek ways to control and manipulate others, is a punishment in itself. The reality is that the hardest time a prisoner can ever serve is having to face up to what they have done and how it has impacted people’s lives, the victims, as well as their families.

In purgatory the soul willingly confronts the reality of their sinful life, and in embracing the healing and purifying fire of divine love, they truly pay back the last penny before their entry into heaven. It is humanly impossible to create a prison system that effectively heals and ensures that the prisoner pays back the debt of their crime to satisfy human justice. Presently prisoners are let our too early before the debt has been paid and are still a high risk in terms of reoffending and risk of harm to others. There are also prisoners who have been wrongly convicted as well as those who have sentences that are disproportionate to the crime they have committed. There is no easy answer to these deep-seated failures of the criminal justice system. The Church’s tradition reveals that the Holy Souls embrace their “prison” of love with the sure knowledge of their place in heaven. A penal system imbued with mercy and truth at its core will engender hope and will require above all else to have our Savior as its cornerstone.

“My grace is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 2:9)

A key turning point in the spiritual life is to accept our weaknesses and imperfections and become dependent on the grace of God. The saints not only accepted their weaknesses, they rejoiced in their nothingness, and in doing so understood through their lived experience the peculiar worldview that is unique to Christianity. That is to see and taste in the depths of their being their nothingness next to the immensity of God’s personal love for them.

What does this teach us when reflecting on the criminal justice system? If a person trapped in a criminal lifestyle is unwilling to accept full responsibility for their offending and so begin to accept whatever help is offered, they will continue to offend. The change process can be a tortuous one — with many glimpses of hope and change interspersed with relapses and for some utter desperation and despair.

In reflecting more deeply on the mysterious workings of God’s grace we see more clearly how supernatural intervention is really needed in order to break an entrenched pattern of criminal or illegal substance misuse. We all know how difficult it is to change a habit; as the familiar saying testifies, “old habits die hard.” For those caught within a cycle of habitual offending, the challenge is increased. Relying on our own efforts, even if we have the support of others, either informally or via structured treatment programs, is being totally reliant on purely human or natural means.

There is something extraordinary about God’s action where he invisibly replaces, so to speak, our old life with the new divine life. If we consciously live out our original baptismal grace and sincerely die to sin and live the new life, with and through Christ, this new life will be infused by Christ himself, independent of our own personal activity. Rather than our having to make the efforts to replace an old pattern of behavior, the new life communicated by the Holy Spirit will be imparted to our soul in a manner completely hidden from our own eyes. In effect, God does all the work without us consciously knowing it. Christ the healer and helper of souls, breaks the chains of the old self bringing in the new creation, as a gratuitous gift of his abundant love.

In stating this, I am not suggesting that employment, education and treatment courses to address addiction and mental health issues do not have a key role, and that all can be achieved through spiritual means alone. Integral to any program is recognizing that the physical, psychological, moral and spiritual needs of the human person need to be addressed. The temptation is to enter into either, or thinking and favor one dimension over another. The preponderance of research into the biological causes of criminal behavior evidence this tendency. The both, and perspective of Catholicism breaks through the shackles of a narrow either, or worldview.

The Optimum Equation

The key objective of any service or intervention is to deliver the right service or intervention to the right person at the right time and in the right manner. This optimum equation is achieved by God’s grace at every moment. What do I mean by this? Well at every moment of our lives God provides the actual, or temporary grace to enable us to come closer to becoming the person he predestined us to become.

I believe that a treatment program that reflects the properties and qualities of God’s grace will be more effective and indeed act as a channel for God’s grace. As God is infinitely perfect, he achieves the right time, place, manner (or mode) and the right person in the communication of his grace. The rule for understanding grace is that it reflects the qualities or attributes of God. Grace is non-competitive and so does not take over our actions as if we become a robot. In order for grace to be communicated at the right time, place, manner, and to the right person, the communicator of grace must be creative. We see God’s creativity in the endless variety of plants and animals in the world and the fact that all the leaves on one tree are all different. As grace is a gift that we do not ask for, as in the case of the non-believer, it is given gratuitously as a guiding and helping hand. The effects of actual grace on a soul are truly transformative as evidenced by the many people who in fact do lead a non-offending lifestyle after years of offending habitually.

There is a remarkable passage in St. Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue where we get an insight into the reality of actual grace. It is in the many different ways that God communicates his grace — in “so many ways your tongue could never describe them.”

Worldly people who are dead in mortal sin wake up with the pricking or weariness they feel within their hearts in new and different ways — so many ways your tongue could never describe them.4

The Catholic tradition has always distinguished between actual and sanctifying grace. To share in God’s nature through receiving sanctifying grace as a believer we share in the divine life itself. This is received through the sacraments and a soul in a state of grace has the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity in their soul.  The qualities or attributes of God — love, truth, mercy and patience — become permanent or habitual features of the soul.

His grace is always available, but what is often lacking is our response. To be open to every invitation he presents to us is difficult. Our failure to respond to his grace reflects the difficulty services face in being able to achieve the optimum equation. In other words, services really struggle in being able to deliver the right intervention to the right person in the right manner and at the right time.

The answer to this significant issue is found in people who are ultimately inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit blows where it wills (John 3:8), and the divine will of the third person of the Blessed Trinity cannot be neatly defined or measured within a scientific framework. Homeboys initiatives, which now operates worldwide, was inspired by Fr. Greg Boyle and began in Los Angeles focusing on men who wanted to leave the many gangs that afflict the area. The focus on employment, relationships and the invitation to embrace the life of faith is also underpinned by an awareness of the uniqueness of each person and what each one needs will vary. The Christian foundations can be recognized in the fact that unconditional love and acceptance of gang members are seen as integral ingredients which enable them to be transformed and so discover a new identity which protects them from returning to old patterns of behavior. The success of such a program cannot be captured in statistics but is measured in peoples’ stories and the fact that it has spread throughout the world.5

In a similar vein, the Cenacolo community for substance misusers is another example of the Holy spirit blowing where it pleases. With the Eucharist at the centre of community it offers those saddled with addictions hope and healing through the resurrected Christ. There are now seventy communities throughout the world following the original inspiration of the communities’ founder, Mother Elvira.

“All of us . . . make up one body in Christ” (Rom 12:5)

As a consequence of the exclusion of realities such as the soul, sin, and grace from policy our understanding of the human person is diminished. While we have considerable insight into the physical and psychological dimensions of the human person our understanding of the moral and spiritual dimensions is more limited. If policy initiatives do not acknowledge the human person in the fullness of truth, then not surprisingly their effect will be limited.

Without a biblically informed worldview we have a very fragmented picture and have no means of establishing a connected view of reality. In reflecting on Christ’ mystical body a profound reality is that each and every one of our actions impacts on his whole mystical body. People who experience NDE testify to this fact through the awareness they have of the ripple effect of their actions. The interconnectedness of the human family, our dependence on each other and God’s grace are foundational elements of the realities of our lives.

Christ showed us the way on the cross, yet the world’s renewal and redemption requires our cooperation. The conquering of death and sin through Jesus’ resurrection did not alter the fact that we still live in a fallen world. The consequences of sin are still with us; the big difference is now we have the remedy for sin through Christ’ grace which he won for us through his death on the cross. What does this profound truth have to do with the criminal justice system? Souls are saved and saints “made” through repentance and forgiveness. The development of victim empathy is the building blocks for true and sincere repentance. The forgiveness of the perpetrator by the victim enables the only true healing of wounds inflicted through their actions. Both these paths are incredibly difficult and challenging and it must be stressed, are only possible through the grace of the Holy Spirit. The hardest time for any offender is facing the reality of the harm they have caused and the most difficult thing anybody can do is forgive someone for a gross injustice which they have suffered. For many repentance and forgiveness may only come in the final moments of their life as they come before the blazing love and mercy of our Savior.


We all adhere to the logic of “prevention is better than cure,” but how hard it is to actually prevent people from entering a life of crime. The precursor to criminality is undoubtedly in many instances a troubled family life where the absence of unconditional love leads children to act out the personal trauma they experience. Until God is at the centre of every human family where the grace that flows from the sacred heart of Christ provides the strength to love unconditionally and to forgive each day our trespasses, then the reality is many wounded children will become the future prisoners in a system that reflects the brokenness of the human family. This is not to deny the reality that there will always be a group of people who in the mystery of God’s providence will reject his many graces and embrace a life of deceit and evil. Beyond the realms of justice is the mercy of God that calls prisoners to repentance and victims to forgiveness so that in his heavenly kingdom, both will be united in the one human family giving praise and glory to him, for all eternity.

  1. Robert Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D., The Soul’s Upward Yearning Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015), p 148-152.
  2. Fr. Thaddeus Doyle, I Want to Go to Heaven the Moment I Die (Thaddeus Doyle Rev. House of Mission, Shillelagh, Arklow, Co: Wicklow, Ireland, 2008).
  3. Brent Withers, “Psychopathy – A Deeper Reality Revealed Through Catholicism,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, March 30, 2018.
  4. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue: The Classics of Western Spirituality, trans. Suzanne Noffke, O.P. (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 297.
  5. Tom Gash, Criminal: The Truth About Why People Do Bad Things (Penguin Random House: London, 2017).
Brent Withers About Brent Withers

Brent Withers is originally from New Zealand. He is now living in Farnborough, England, with his wife and three young children. He returned to the Catholic Church about ten years ago after being away for about twenty or so years. He has previously published essays with the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. Presently, he is employed as a commissioning manager for mental health services in an inner London City borough.