On criminal punishment, a Viennese auxiliary bishop has urged lawmakers and judges to “prefer mercy to severity and prevention to imprisonment”.

– Calls for tougher sentences make outreach, resocialisation “much more difficult”

Bishop Franz Scharl made the appeal in an August 24 interview with the Austrian Catholic news agency Kathpress in which he lamented that “the calls for tougher punishments, which have been intensified by politics and the media, make the humane treatment of offenders as well as their resocialisation much more difficult”.

Insisting that punishment alone is no match for opening up perspectives for people pushed to a life of crime, Scharl – who has within his remit as auxiliary bishop in the Austrian capital the oversight of pastoral care in prisons – denounced that jails today are too often “factories of crime” instead of places for prisoners’ rehabilitation and reintegration.

– Church “still far too self-centred” to credibly stand up for marginalised

In general terms on sentencing policy, Scharl argued that better than “a top-down principle in which the equal treatment of all is the top priority” would be an approach in which “more attention… [is] paid to the individual case and the development of a person” in trouble with the law.

In concrete terms, the bishop said, that differentiated approach to the punishment and rehabilitation of criminals could involve greater use of electronic tagging over prison sentences, with that device having the potential to enable supervised work activities on the part of convicts instead of forcing them to face “hospital[isation]” and “degradation” in jails.

Scharl recalled that the Church through its chaplains and other pastoral workers and volunteers in prisons has witnessed first-hand the shortcomings of the criminal justice system, which tragedies he said extend to those situations in which non-Austrian citizens with criminal convictions are deported after serving their sentences and efforts made to rehabilitate them are thrown out the window.

But even despite the Church’s presence in jails, the Vienna auxiliary said Catholics still have a way to go to hone their social justice sensibilities.

“We are still far too self-centred with regard to socially-marginalised groups, even in the Church, and must become more practical in order to stand up for them credibly. Cooperation and setting a good example are more important here than big speeches”, Scharl insisted.

– Poorer countries tackling debt crises face same “merciless harshness” as prisoners

The occasion for the Vienna bishop’s plea for reform in criminal punishment was a webinar organised by a coalition of faith-based organisations active in the fields of criminal justice and the prevention of crime, for which event Scharl gave the introduction.

In that webinar, jurists and other experts from Austria, Israel, the United Kingdom, Malysia, Myanmar and the USA, among other places, appealed for the maintenance of contacts between prisoners and their families even in the context of COVID-19, as well as for the improvement of hygiene facilities in jails.

Father Brian Gowans, Scottish Catholic priest and president of the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care, reminded webinar participants of Pope Francis’ November 2019 lament that with regard to prisoners “it is easier to repress than to educate and, I would say, it is more comfortable too”.

Throughout his pontificate, Francis has complained that prisoners are often “prevented from fully regaining their dignity” and upon completing their sentences are “often exposed once again to the lack of opportunities which… led them to committing a crime in the first place”, Scharl explained to Kathpress.

The Vienna auxiliary bishop likened that vicious circle of criminal punishment “to the problem of poorer countries which have to take on debts whose interest rates make them even poorer and keep them in slavery”.

“Just as a debt cut would be needed here, a difficult history of individuals who have committed crimes should not be made even more difficult by merciless harshness”, Scharl implored.

More on Novena on the Church’s concern for prisoners:

New Vatican Directory for Catechesis encourages preferential option for poor, solidarity with prisoners

Coronavirus: Italian Catholics plead for release of mothers and children from jail

“No sin will ever have the last word”: Pope’s Good Friday meditations speak of hope beyond crime

Vatican official urges world not to forget prisoners amid coronavirus


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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.