Ganging Up On Crime

Not long ago Americans turned on their television sets to see a first in criminal justice: female chain gangs. Fifteen convicts, clad in orange jumpsuits and leg irons, picked up trash along an Arizona desert roadway. As they worked in the 100-degree heat, the women sang:   Big wide belts and shiny boots, People say that we look cute.   Well, cute or not, chain gangs--male or female--are not the answer to America's crime problem. This is an election year, and we're hearing a lot of proposed solutions to crime: three strikes laws, chain gangs, more prisons, and abolishing parole. Politicians know that crime is America's top worry. That's why they're promising that this time, they're going to get really tough on crime. Really. Where have we heard this before? In the 1970s--from people like me. Conservatives promised to lock ‘em up and throw away the key--and we've been as good as our word. We've quadrupled prison space since 1979. The result? Violent crime has risen 560 percent since the 1960s. Juvenile homicides have tripled in the last decade. Other get-tough ideas have failed, as well. Remember the Scared Straight program, which put kids at risk into prison settings? It was a miserable failure: Adolescents who participated actually committed more crimes than kids who didn't. The truth is, successful crime prevention will come only when we recognize that crime is a moral problem that demands moral solutions. I fully recognize that the very hint of a morality-based approach to crime will send some of our cultural elites into a swoon. But the fact is that moral regeneration really works. The most dramatic proof is the Humaita prison in Brazil--a prison run by Christians. At Humaita, the Gospel is proclaimed and genuine love is shared. Inmates take classes in the arts, religion, and technical skills, and perform practical work around the prison. Each inmate is teamed with a volunteer family that invites him home for lunch on Sundays as soon as he's able to be furloughed. Humaita's faith-based policies have met miraculous and indisputable success. While the recidivism among Brazil's criminals is 75 percent, at Humaita it's 4 percent. The state of Florida has also taken a moral approach to criminal justice. Through a program called PRIDE, Florida inmates work for wages. This allows criminals to make restitution for their crimes and keep their families off welfare and out of homeless shelters. Both Humaita and Florida's PRIDE program recognize that moral solutions are the only real answer to the problem of crime. But you don't have to take my word for it. Psychologist Stanton Samenow and psychiatrist Samuel Yochelson conducted a 17-year study of prison inmates. They concluded that crime was caused by individuals making wrong choices. The answer to crime, according to these experts, was "conversion of the wrongdoer to a more responsible lifestyle." Other researchers have reached similar conclusions. Americans must engage in a national debate about morality and crime. Sending convicts out on chain gangs might make politicians look tough on crime--and maybe get their faces on television--but solutions like these are nothing to sing about. The real answer comes through unshackling tough moral solutions.    


Chuck Colson


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