Those of us who believe that our social and political order rests on moral foundations applaud William Bennett for his Index of Leading Cultural Indicators. The Index graphically exposes the alarming extent to which those moral foundations have been eroded.
No more compelling evidence of crisis can be found than the staggering crime statistic: a 560-percent increase in violent crimes since the 1960s. Having worked in the field of crime and prisons for seventeen years, I especially applaud Bill Bennett’s conclusion that crime is at root a moral problem: the inevitable price a culture pays for abandoning its moral tradition and failing to inculcate character in its youth.
But when it comes to the solution, Bennett and I part company. At the top of his list of policy recommendations is the old get-tough approach to crime. He calls for “a more effective and tough-minded criminal justice system, including more prisons, judges, and prosecutors.” I submit that this is precisely the wrong place to start—and that Bennett has been taken in by a combination of old myths and recent studies.
For example, he argues that though the cost of incarcerating offenders is high, the cost of not incarcerating them is much higher. Without citing it by name, Bennett is using statistics from a study by Edwin Zedlewski entitled “Making Confinement Decisions.” This study concluded that each year a criminal spends behind bars, society saves $430,000 in the direct and indirect costs associated with crime (damages, security, police, courts, prisons, etc.). The inescapable conclusion seems to be that incarceration is extraordinarily cost-effective.
The Zedlewski study was all the rage with conservatives for a time—until people began to examine its premises. It assumes that an average criminal on the loose commits 187 crimes per year. If that were true, then the fact that at the end of 1991 American prisons contained 824,133 people would mean we prevented 154,112,871 crimes that year. But this number is patently absurd: It is ten times the number of crimes actually reported that year.
Moreover, on Zedlewski’s assumptions, the nation also saved $354,459,670,000 in costs. At this rate, putting more people behind bars would not only solve crime, it would also solve the national deficit!
A more serious problem with the Zedlewski study is the fundamental assumption on which it rests: the assumption that incarceration prevents crime. Government figures show no relationship between incarceration rates and crime rates. Between 1980 and 1991, the incarceration rate rose by a staggering 130 percent, yet the overall crime rate remained stubbornly at an all-time high. More disturbing, violent crime as a percentage of the overall rate rose by 27 percent.
The most serious error Bennett makes, however, is also the most surprising. He rightly identifies crime as a moral problem, then, astonishingly, offers as his primary policy recommendation the expansion of government programs. I know Bennett does not really believe government bureaucracies can remedy moral failings. He himself says, “There are real limits to what the state can do, particularly when it comes to imparting virtue and forming character.” I would suggest he has not yet worked out what this skepticism toward government ought to mean for policy. As a result, he falls back on the lock-‘em-up approach for which he was so well known as the nation’s drug czar.
But we have tried that approach and it has failed. Other failed government programs may be able to complain they never got “full funding,” but not prisons. Their coffers have been full: $37 billion in new prison construction over the last twenty years, with $15 billion more underway or planned. Today we have 1.3 million people in prisons and jails (nearly the size of our active-duty military) yet our streets are not any safer. Our schools, with their metal detectors and armed guards, look more like prisons than some prisons do. In some communities it is more dangerous for a young black man to walk the streets than it was to be an infantryman in Vietnam.
Other failed bureaucracies may claim they were undermined by political bickering, but not prisons. Seldom has a bureaucracy fit more snugly within the agendas of both the left and the right. Consider first the liberal approach. The prevailing liberal view has been that crime is caused by environmental factors—poverty, racism, oppression. This assumption shaped public policy in the 1930s and 1940s, when prisons stopped being regarded as places for punishment and became tools for “resocialization.” Vestiges of this attitude are evident when liberals describe the Los Angeles riot as a “rebellion” or “uprising,” as though what happened was not theft and arson but a protest against oppression.
But therapy proved no match for criminal behavior. And today even most liberals have abandoned the hope that prisons can rehabilitate.
Conservative assumptions on crime and punishment are equally flawed. I know: I used to write Richard Nixon’s law-and-order policies. Conservative politicians who thunder “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” can always count on applause.
This approach rests on deterrent theory: that criminal behavior is deterred by fear of punishment. The problem is that fear does little to change behavior. The “Scared Straight” program in Rahway, New Jersey, subject of an award-winning documentary, was designed to frighten kids out of crime. But it had to be discontinued when kids in the program started committing more crimes than those outside.
The deterrent theory conceives of criminals as rational calculators who count the costs of spending time in prison against the benefits of crime. But the motivation behind crime is much more complex than that. And so, ironically, conservatives—who accuse liberals of throwing money at problems—have themselves been doing the same thing.
The painful truth is that both liberals and conservatives have forgotten how to account for character and creed. They have ignored the fact that the fate of the moral order depends on the state of the soul.
In 1977, psychologist Stanton Samenow and psychiatrist Samuel Yochelson published a landmark seventeen-year study, The Criminal Personality. They found that crime cannot be traced primarily to environmental factors. The only adequate explanation, they concluded, is the moral choices of individuals. The solution to crime, they said (revealing their Jewish roots), is “the conversion of the wrongdoer to a more responsible lifestyle.”
In 1987 professors Richard J. Herrnstein and James Q. Wilson came to similar conclusions in Crime and Human Nature. They determined that the cause of crime is a lack of moral training in the morally formative years.
Clearly, the evidence points to the need for a moral response to crime. What might such a response look like?
First, it would take redemption more seriously than rehabilitation. That means encouraging volunteer efforts like Prison Fellowship, which has 50,000 volunteers who take the Gospel into prisons, teach values and lifestyle seminars, conduct Bible studies, correspond with inmates, and mentor them after release.
Of course, religious faith cannot be judged by its social utility, as though various religions could be rated in Consumer Reports. Nevertheless, we would be foolish to ignore religion’s power to change the way people live. A 1990 study conducted at Loyola College in Maryland found that offenders who had participated in Prison Fellowship programs were nearly 22 percent less likely to be rearrested than those who had not. And even those who were rearrested were charged with less serious offenses.
Second, a new paradigm of punishment must distinguish between criminals who pose a physical threat to society and those who do not—and who would be more effectively punished by alternative sentencing. Bars and walls do serve a useful purpose in segregating the violent from the victim. But nearly 50 percent of prisoners are non-dangerous, and do not need to be housed in expensive prison cells ($80,000 to build, $20,000 per year to maintain). Instead, they should be placed in boot camps, community-based punishment or drug-treatment programs, or home incarceration with electronic monitoring (at a fraction of the cost and often with lower recidivism rates). Offenders who work in the community can be required to pay restitution to their victims, which forces them to accept responsibility for their behavior. This is real moral reformation.
Don’t get me wrong. I do believe people who break the law ought to be punished. The question is merely what form of punishment works best for different classes of offenders. Alternative sentencing can be so demanding that many offenders prefer to go to prison. Moreover, the adoption of alternatives frees up the prison space needed to isolate truly dangerous offenders from the public. Attorney General Janet Reno recently noted that murderers and rapists spend little time behind bars precisely because low-level drug offenders are clogging our nation’s prisons.
Third, even violent and predatory criminals should not merely be warehoused behind prison walls. It is scandalous that 1.3 million Americans sit in our prisons and jails doing nothing—at public expense. They ought to be required to participate in prison work programs to offset the costs of their incarceration. As an added benefit, work programs train inmates in marketable skills and help prepare them to reenter society. There currently exist numerous state-run and privately-run prison industries that teach criminals the value and rewards of hard work. These programs encourage a sense of responsibility and dignity, critical elements in moral reformation. Former Chief Justice Warren Burger stated the alternatives well: “Do we want prisoners to return to society as predators or producers?”
Fourth, and most important, we must confront our culture’s crumbling moral consensus. Crime does not stem from inadequate law enforcement or an insufficient number of prison cells; it stems from a lack of values. In the early 1980s, James Q. Wilson surveyed American history for some trend correlating with crime data. Contrary to his expectations, crime did not correlate with any of the generally cited factors, such as poverty or urbanization. For example, the mid-nineteenth century was a period of rapid urbanization yet the level of crime actually fell. Why? Just as industrialization was getting underway, Wilson found, so was the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening, which brought with it widespread moral renewal.
British sociologist Christie Davies found the same thing. In the late nineteenth century when Sunday School attendance in Britain was at its peak, crime declined. Since then, attendance has declined and crime has increased.
The evidence is clear: Moral reformation, not expanding bureaucracies, is the answer to rising crime. But is it realistic? Do moral responses work?
Yes. I have seen it with my own eyes, both as a prisoner and as a visitor in six hundred prisons in thirty countries. And most dramatically, in Humaita Prison in San Jose Dos Campos, Brazil. Twenty years ago the prison was turned over to two Christian laymen to run. Their plan was to operate it on Christian principles.
The prison has only two full-time paid staff; the rest of the work is done by inmates. Every inmate is assigned a buddy for personal accountability (a strategy that has proven highly effective in the military). Every inmate is also assigned a volunteer family from the outside that works with him during his incarceration and assists him upon release. Inmates may choose between a chapel program or a course in character development.
In my visit to Humaita, I saw well-maintained grounds, clean living areas, inmates working industriously. Sayings from Psalms and Proverbs decorated the prison walls. At one point, my inmate guide offered to escort me to the notorious punishment cell once used for torture. Today, he told me, the cell houses only a single inmate. As we reached the end of the corridor and he put the key into the lock, he paused and asked, “Are you sure you want to go in?”
“Of course,” I replied somewhat impatiently. “I’ve been in punishment cells all over the world.” Slowly he swung the door open, and I saw the “inmate” in that punishment cell: a beautifully carved crucifix. Jesus hanging on the cross.
“He’s doing time for all the rest of us,” my guide said softly.
I am convinced that what I saw in the punishment cell at Humaita Prison explains why its recidivism rate remains at 4 percent, while in the rest of Brazil it is a staggering 75 percent. The moral and spiritual approach to crime does work. The lesson for us here in America is that we cannot build our way out of the crime problem. We will stem the surging tide of crime only by a rehabilitation of the soul.
Charles Colson is chairman of Prison Fellowship Ministries, based in Washington, D.C.