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Over the years, First Things has done a good job of highlighting the issue of prison overcrowding, the rehabilitative efficacy of faith-based treatment programs for inmates, and the negative social and moral consequences of employing such discredited and degrading (but once again fashionable) penal sanctions as “chain gangs.” Likewise, in commenting on my call to harness churches to the task of resurrecting the civil society of drug-and-crime-ravaged inner-city neighborhoods (The Public Square, April 1996), Father Richard John Neuhaus was right to remind us that to embrace religion solely for the sake of its social utility is to make a “dangerous embrace” and flirt with “a kind of blasphemy.” And, on the subject of welfare reform, I concur with the editors of First Things that some type of far-reaching reforms are necessary (“Moynihan’s Counsel of Despair,” March 1996). But there are additional facts, figures, and arguments about faith, prisons, and welfare policies that may be worth airing in First Things .

Compared to most policy-oriented academics who publish both in scholarly journals and in popular outlets, I am undoubtedly what Fr. Neuhaus termed me: “hard-nosed” and a “strong proponent of incarceration” for violent and repeat criminals, adult and juvenile.

Based on the best survey data, however, it is clear that most Americans of every race, religion, region, demographic description, and socioeconomic status are every bit as tough-minded and in favor of imprisonment as I am. That’s why crime has been among the top three civic concerns for most of the last three decades. And that’s why crime and crime-related social ills rank as the single biggest reason that the middle class continue to leave the nation’s great cities in favor of longer-commute, middle-of-nowhere, but safer (for now) ex-urban zip codes.

Politicians of both parties have used revolving-door justice as a campaign scare tactic, and sometimes as a racially polarizing law-and-order issue. Likewise, the media have often hyped coverage of crime, most especially the local “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” news shows. The fact, nonetheless, is that revolving-door justice is a reality that kills innocent people (many of them children) and destroys entire neighborhoods.

Consider just a few of the key facts. In 1993 Americans suffered over forty-three million criminal victimizations, including over ten million violent criminal victimizations, a quarter of them murders, rapes, aggravated assaults, armed robberies, and other injury—or fatality—causing attacks. According to the most recent National Institute of Justice study, each year violent crimes cost their victims and society over $40

0 billion in direct economic losses and long—term health and other problems (not even counting the tens of millions of property, drug, and other crimes). And yet we spend only about $100 billion a year on all criminal justice activities (police, prosecutors, public defenders, courts, corrections) at all levels of government—a sum that is barely static in terms of total government spending and not even a pittance of our nation’s Gross Domestic Product.

Indeed, the revolving-door reality is that the system has broken down to the point where it does not even come close to incarcerating most violent offenders. There are today more convicted adult violent felons doing time on the streets without any real supervision than are serving time behind bars. Not surprisingly, therefore, fully a third of all adult violent crimes are now committed by known offenders out on probation, parole, or pretrial release, and in state courts nearly half of all offenders convicted of a single violent crime, and a quarter of those convicted of three or more crimes at least one of which is violent, are not even sentenced to prison.

Make no mistake: the public’s loss of trust and confidence in our political institutions has been led by the people’s justifiable (and now decades-old) frustration with a government that has failed to restrain known, adjudicated, violent, and repeat criminals from repeatedly returning to the streets and finding new victims.

Between 1980 and 1994, the nation’s state and federal prison population increased from 319,598 to 999,808. Over the same period, however, the number of convicted criminals out on probation or parole increased from 1,338,535 to 3,652,325. On any given day, for every three persons who were incarcerated (in state and federal prisons or local jails), seven convicted offenders were on the streets with little or no supervision. Every major experimental and quasi-experimental probation and parole program, including the “intensive” ones about which I had such high hopes in the 1980s, has had to face the reality of high rates of recidivism and a near-total lack of any savings, financial, social, or spiritual.

Indeed, in 1991 alone some 45 percent of state prisoners were criminals who, at the very moment they committed their latest crimes, were on probation or parole. While “under supervision” in the community, they committed at least 218,000 violent crimes, including 13,200 murders and 11,600 rapes (over half of the rapes against children).

Based on a scientific sample representing 711,000 imprisoned felons, Lawrence Greenfeld of the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics has shown conclusively that fully 94 percent of state prisoners had committed one or more violent crimes (62 percent) or committed multiple nonviolent crimes (32 percent) in the past. Comparable national data stretching back to the 1970s make plain that over 90 percent of state prisoners are violent or repeat offenders.

The state-by-state data tell the same tale. For example, in 1990 Harvard economist Anne Morrison Piehl and I studied a large sample of the Wisconsin prison population. We found that in the year before they were imprisoned, Wisconsin prisoners committed a median of twelve crimes, excluding all drug crimes. In 1993 we studied a large sample of New Jersey prisoners and found exactly the same thing—they committed a dozen crimes a year excluding all drug crimes. Empirical studies by analysts at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and elsewhere indicate that the number of non-drug crimes that prisoners commit when free may be higher than twelve. Thus a recent NBER research bulletin that declared the obvious: “Incarceration can cut crime.”

Of course, the whole truth about who really goes to prison in America can be known only from detailed, case-by-case, rap-sheet-by-rap-sheet analyses of those behind bars. For example, several blue-ribbon panels have asserted that the growth in California’s prison system since 1980 has been driven largely by the return to prison of “mere technical parole violators” (released felons who simply failed a urine test or failed to show for a date with their parole agent). But when UC-Irvine scholar Joan R. Petersilia dug into the records on the 84,197 adults admitted to California prisons in 1991, she found that only 3,116 (under 4 percent) were, in fact, technical parole violators.

What about “mere drug offenders” behind bars? Between 1980 and 1993, the number of persons in state prisons for violent crimes grew by 221,000, 1.3 times the growth in imprisoned drug offenders. As a recent study funded in part by the National Institute of Justice correctly observes, “the label ‘drug offender’ is a misnomer. It implies a degree of specialization not supported by research on individual offending patterns,” which shows plainly “that drug offenders commonly commit other types of crime, most notably robbery, burglary, and violent offenses.”

The fact is that virtually all “drug offenders” behind bars are in for drug trafficking, not mere possession. In 1991, for example, only 703 (2 percent) of the 36,648 persons admitted to federal prisons were in for drug possession. Almost all imprisoned drug traffickers, federal and state, have long criminal records, adult and juvenile. Only their latest or most serious adult conviction is for a drug offense. There are exceptional cases of truly first-time, nonviolent, low-level drug offenders who end up behind bars. (I have supported the executive clemency petitions of a few such inmates.) But they are the exceptions. U.S. attorneys and big-city cops are simply not focusing their enforcement energies against petty drug criminals.

In a recently published Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) study of the complete adult and juvenile criminal histories of prisoners from Milwaukee, WPRI analyst George Mitchell and I found that 90 percent of the urban criminals had a prior conviction and 87 percent were in for a violent crime. Based on a review of 3,500 pages of criminal records, we found that first-time drug offenders were less than 2 percent of the prison population. The imprisoned “drug offenders” had multiple arrests, bouts on probation, and adult and juvenile crimes, including auto theft, burglary, robbery, retail theft, domestic violence, sexual assault, drunk driving, jumping bail, and, of course, drug dealing.

And that’s just what’s on their official records. Swept entirely under the rug are all of the more serious crimes that the imprisoned “drug offenders” have plea-bargained away, not to mention all of the wholly undetected, unprosecuted, and unpunished crimes they may have done (again, probably at least a dozen a year excluding all drug crimes in half or more of all cases).

I invite anyone who is interested to read our verbatim transcripts drawn from the actual prison intake, pre-sentencing, and probation and parole reports on “first-time,” “low-risk,” “mere property,” and “mere drug” offenders. Read the case-by-case records and then decide for yourself and according to whatever criteria you deem relevant whether any of the imprisoned felons pose no threat to public safety or simply do not deserve to be in prison.

Of course, even the worst prisoners are not human refuse. Since 1987 I have written and spoken out in favor of improving prison administration and the quality of life behind bars. Prisoners are not entitled to every creature comfort, but they are entitled to safety, humane treatment, and opportunities for self-betterment. I said so in Governing Prisons (1987), again in No Escape (1990), again in a widely used 1992 U.S. Justice Department manual on performance-measurement standards for prisons and jails, and again in testimony and speeches over the last four years (including recent talks before the National District Attorneys Association, the National Association of Attorneys General, the New York State Governor’s Criminal Justice Forum, and many others).

While America’s prisons are hardly perfect, imprisoned felons are not doing lots of hard time under horrible conditions—far from it. Despite the enactment of mandatory minimum laws, between 1985 and 1992 the average maximum sentences of prisoners declined about 15 percent from seventy-eight months to sixty-seven months. In 1992 the actual time served by felons whose latest conviction was for a violent crime was only forty-three months.

Thanks to new prison construction, prison overcrowding has abated since the 1980s. About a dozen states are now under capacity. In many states, half or more of each prison dollar is spent on inmate medical services and rehabilitation programs, not security basics.

To our nation’s credit, most prisons are now well-appointed medium—and minimum—security facilities (well-stocked libraries, computers, and more), not old, dungeon—like maximum—security joints. Like many people who study or have worked in corrections, I have been inside hundreds of prisons and jails over the past fifteen years. I have served as an officer of a big-city jail oversight board, evaluated private prison facilities, and conducted intensive training programs for state and federal prison wardens. Also, I have chaired or been a consultant to several gubernatorial task forces on prisons and sentencing policy. Based on this experience, I am certain that if average Americans of good will toured a representative sample of the nation’s prisons, including the newer maximum-security prisons, few of them would exit worrying about prisoners’ rights or brutal, warehousing conditions.

Whatever one’s perspective on adult crime and punishment in America today, it should be impossible for any honest person to deny that the adult justice system is only America’s second biggest self-inflicted crime wound. The juvenile system remains by far the first and worst revolving door.

Over the last decade, virtually every state has seen significant increases in the number and severity of juvenile violent crimes, and has passed get-tough (or, better, “get serious”) laws to rectify the problem and protect the public. Yet there has been no meaningful increase in the number of violent and habitual juvenile criminals held in secure confinement.

For example, in 1991 fewer than twenty thousand male juvenile violent offenders were in secure juvenile facilities—but in 1992 alone there were 108,478 juvenile arrests for violent crimes, and more than 1.6 million juvenile arrests for other crimes. In most states, police, prosecutors, and judges do not even have complete access to juvenile records, and some states still forbid fingerprinting juveniles, including kids charged with weapons offenses that would be grade-A felonies if committed by adults. Despite all the new juvenile justice laws, under 2 percent of juvenile delinquents who come before judges are waived to adult courts, and an even smaller fraction end up being restrained in prison or jail.

The “deinstitutionalization” of juvenile criminals (most were never institutionalized in the first place) is an ongoing social disaster. Given the fact that there will be about thirty-five million males age seventeen or under in the population by the year 2010—roughly five million more than there were in 1990, and a larger fraction of boys than ever before growing up as the abused and neglected sons of fatherless, godless, and jobless homes and neighborhoods—the worst is most definitely yet to come.

But I do not despair. Today’s four to seven year-old inner-city boys are not yet tomorrow’s juvenile superpredators or the next century’s first class of adult career criminals. Time is rapidly running out, but we still have choices. Especially with respect to the acute dilemma of black youth crime, we must choose both incarceration and salvation: incarceration, to restrain the deviant, delinquent, and criminal element that is already upon us from inflicting further harm against life, liberty, and property; salvation via faith-based, church-centered approaches, to save young souls and lives before it is too late.

With the Reverend Eugene Rivers of Boston and others, I am actively working toward the goal of organizing one thousand black inner-city churches around a faith-anchored ten-point youth and community development plan. The plan has already shown miraculous results in Boston and a few other cities. We aim to organize at least fifty churches in each of the nation’s twenty largest cities around the same plan. As Pastor Rivers says, “It’s either barbed wire and more black juvenile superpredators, or civil society and stronger black churches. It’s that simple.”

Just as I think the Reverend Rivers is right about faith and youth crime, I think Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is mostly right about another issue with special relevance to the fate of America’s inner cities, namely, welfare reform.

As First Things has acknowledged, Senator Moynihan has forgotten more than most of us will ever know about welfare policies. And he has always had a keen eye and a stout heart about telling sobering social facts. His opposition to the latest welfare reform packages is firmly in that truth-speaking tradition. Some snippets of his recent reformist rhetoric may disappoint, but the reformist rhetoric on the other side of the aisle in Congress—a rhetoric that has likened welfare recipients to lazy animals, among other disgraceful word-images—has been far, far worse.

When it comes to welfare policies, God is truly in the statutory and administrative details. Just as it was obvious to everyone in the 1960s that lots of folks were poor, it is now obvious to almost everyone that welfare has done at least as much harm as good, proven more expensive than anticipated, and had many perverse and unintended consequences (illegitimacy, dependency, voluntary joblessness, family destruction, crime). But what was not obvious to serious-minded people in the sixties, and what is not obvious to serious-minded people in the nineties, is precisely how best to fashion and administer policy responses that make things better.

Senator Moynihan’s counsel of realism on welfare does not bar the door on the sorts of far-reaching reforms that many conservatives now favor. But it does hit the facile conservative social engineers of the nineties with a gang of inconvenient facts, figures, and arguments.

To cite just a few of these realities, the 1992 welfare population consisted of 9.2 million children (half under age six, a quarter under age three), and 4.4 million adults, almost all of the adults mothers, under 8 percent of the mothers teenagers. The average AFDC family size has decreased from 4 to 2.9 persons since 1969. The monthly support levels available from AFDC and food stamps have fallen steadily since the late 1960s. In 1993, the average monthly welfare check per family was $37


As one of the welfare recipients interviewed for an ongoing New Jersey study summed it up, “Almost everything about welfare sucks.” That’s why most welfare recipients really do try at one point or another to get off the dole. Contrary to popular perceptions of the sort reinforced by First Things ’ editorial, only about 15 percent of welfare recipients stay on welfare continuously for five years or longer. Based on numerous studies, it is absolutely clear that most people who leave welfare for jobs and then return to the welfare rolls do so for legitimate reasons: layoffs, involuntary terminations, loss of child care, individual or family medical problems, loss of housing, domestic violence, and so on.

In short, it is no more true that most welfare recipients are totally lazy, undeserving people than it is true that most prisoners are mere first-time nonviolent criminals.

Likewise, thirty-four million Americans are covered by Medicaid, over half of them children. Research shows that since 1990, were it not for Medicaid, the number of uninsured Americans would have risen from forty-one million to fifty million. After 1965, AFDC and Medicaid together gradually replaced a hit-or-miss system of poverty and health programs sponsored by state and local governments, charities, community hospitals, and public emergency-care facilities for indigent Americans.

As Marvin Olasky has argued so persuasively, the old welfare system had its huge plusses, including getting help to many of those who needed it in a way that was personal, spiritual, and challenging, that bred mutual responsibility, and that averted dependence on impersonal, centralized, government bureaucracies. Still, writ large, the old system could be pretty lousy; in fact, for many depression-era Americans, their children, and their children’s children, it was literally a killer.

But whereas the old welfare system failed to make America’s poor part of “one nation under God,” the new system did more to make America’s poor “one nation under HUD.” The government-anchored system that replaced the old poverty patchwork has turned out to be just as lousy, just as much a killer—a killer of families, neighborhoods, and individual initiative.

Still, in thinking through welfare reform ideas, we need to look at all the key facts and to keep them straight. One fact is that welfare is not really so costly in dollar terms. For example, in 1993 AFDC (total federal and state spending) cost about $22

billion, not even 1 percent of the gross domestic product. And, warts and all, the federal “welfare state” has dependably delivered food, funds, and medicine to scores of millions of impoverished children, pregnant women, and elderly Americans. That’s a lot more than the old system ever did (or could do).

Strictly speaking, the new system did not replace the old, but became a hybrid version of it. Thus, there remains tremendous state-by-state variance not only in how much money welfare and Medicaid recipients actually get but how (and how well) the programs are staffed and administered. Indeed, “welfare” can vary greatly from one county to the next in given states. And the degree to which the “welfare state” is actually a loose confederation of government-assisted private, for-profit, and non-profit organizations (many quite small) has gone largely unnoticed by those who insist that we need to “devolve” programs that are already quite devolved, and have always been so. The perverse federal regulations about which conservatives like to groan are quite real, but they have grown up as weeds in a highly devolved, state-centric, government-by-proxy system of program administration.

To date, most efforts to move people from welfare to work have yielded only marginal benefits. Even where Washington has granted carte blanche waivers and gotten out of the way, those welfare-to-work programs that have worked best have normally involved more, not less, per recipient government spending and more, not fewer, administrators and case workers. Anyone who thinks block grants are the answer ought to know that we have had twenty-three of those, fifteen still in effect. Categorical spending has always risen faster than general spending, and Washington strings on social programs will be no less constraining when they are “conservative strings.” Senator Moynihan knows all this, and more.

Analytically, the welfare—abortion relationship to which the First Things editorial refers is a supremely complicated tangle, and we may never know one way or the other whether given welfare policy changes increased or decreased the incidence of abortion. Based on my own best understanding of extant theoretical arguments, statistical evidence, and ethnographic observations, I believe, as many Catholic bishops apparently do, that the cuts will probably increase the number of abortions.

As I have written elsewhere, big government is like a big bull in civil society’s china shop. It breaks things on the way in and while inside, and we know from experience that it will break things on the way out. Together with Marvin Olasky and others, I believe that civil institutions both can and should do more, government less. But we should be realistic. The problems of making this historic transition are many and severe—one point with which I am finally in agreement with welfare state apologists and the heads of government-supported mega-charities.

At core, Senator Moynihan’s counsel of realism is that welfare is a social policy dilemma which admits of no easy answers, including Clinton-style “ending welfare as we know it” and drastic ready-fire-aim Republican proposals. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, need to manifest a better appreciation for the actual administrative complexities and potential short—and long—run human costs of radical welfare reform measures, including measures that “merely” decrease the rate of spending as the affected populations, young and old, are growing (and as they will continue to grow more rapidly after the year 2002).

In sum, and as Father Neuhaus and most First Things readers would no doubt agree, to discount the moral obligation to protect innocent citizens and society by effectively but humanely restraining known violent and repeat criminals, to deny the efficacy of religion in remaking lives and improving communities, or to mindlessly and heartlessly assume the infinite elasticity of civil institutions in response to new, untested welfare policies and government withdrawal would be to commit a kind of intellectual and moral blasphemy.

John J. DiIulio, Jr. is Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University. He is also director of the Brookings Center for Public Management and Adjunct Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His most recent writing includes an essay on race and crime in the City Journal , and a study of liquor and crime in the Brookings Review.