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Abolishing death penalty, police reform are pro-life issues, say racial justice panelists

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The death penalty and police reform are among racial justice issues that Catholic bishops and lobbyists are following closely in the Virginia General Assembly, said three legal experts who spoke on a panel Jan. 8.

Several measures addressing police reform and training were addressed in a special session last fall, and a new bill to abolish the death penalty will be discussed in the 2021 session, which begins Jan. 13, said Jeffrey Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, the legal advocacy office of Virginia’s bishops and dioceses. 

Caruso was one of the presenters at the event, sponsored by the Racial Justice Ministry of St. John Neumann Church in Reston. More than 70 people tuned in to the presentation, held via Zoom.

The new bill, SB1165, proposes to abolish the death penalty, including for prisoners currently under a death sentence. “We’re happy to see that,” said Caruso. The bill was pre-filed Jan. 8 by state Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Mount Vernon).

“It’s just amazing for me to see how far things have shifted in Virginia on this issue, from just a few years ago (when Catholics were) fighting against death penalty expansion proposals, to now being able to have a conversation about death penalty repeal,” Caruso said.

Racial justice issues such as the death penalty and police reform are pro-life issues because they “disproportionately impact minority communities,” Caruso said. He cited definitions of racism and other statements from “Open Wide Our Hearts,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter against racism. He also quoted from “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration,” the bishops’ 2000 statement on crime and criminal justice.

“Our work is really all about the dignity of the human person,” said Caruso. “That really is the core of Catholic moral and social teaching and is what connects Catholic social teaching to current issues that we take stances on.”

Other issues that affect minority communities and that the VCC follows and advocates for in the legislature include restoring voting rights for those convicted of felonies, ending predatory lending practices (addressed in the 2020 session), preventing gun violence, expanding Medicaid (also addressed recently) and access to health care. “Our stance is that health care is a fundamental right, not a privilege. Everybody must have access to affordable health care,” Caruso said.

The criminal justice reform measures passed during the 2020 special session aim to increase police accountability and address racial disparities; they are consistent with policies the USCCB has advocated for in Congress, Caruso said. 

Two other panelists, Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and Nora Demleitner, professor of law at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, presented statistical research and analysis on the history of racial disparities in carrying out the death penalty and other areas of criminal justice. 

Find out more

For a recording of the panel presentation, go to bit.ly/Doing-Justice.

For more info go to the Virginia Catholic Conference, vacatholic.org, and the USCCB, usccb.org/racism.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021