The people's voice of reason

Counterintuitive Thoughts on Criminal Justice

The tremendous increase in the rate of incarceration that has occurred over the past forty years or so strongly indicates more crimes are happening. Our next few columns we will explore some of the implications. In an earlier column we pointed out that there is no “cause” for crime. There is a cause for proper behavior. The cause for proper behavior is adequate moral formation. We also pointed out that the traditional family was the beginning point of moral formation and that the breakdown of family cannot help but have impact on moral formation and ultimately on criminal activity. All of this background information points to an additional counterintuitive point: the solution to crime will not necessarily result from more law enforcement or more money spent for law enforcement.

And while the escalation of crime may be associated with family breakdown, the answer to crime does not lie in an attempt to rejuvenate the traditional family by forcing parents to live together unwillingly. In my career as a judge, I believe that I saw instances in which moral formation almost happened in reverse. The actions of an abusive father and an immoral mother seemed to result in children whose conscience was plugged in backwards. They could not feel good about themselves unless they were doing something bad!

In addition to family, the peer group is very important in moral formation. Children develop and mature in relationships with people other than immediate family members. As the children grow older, their peer group plays a larger and larger role in their moral formation. Inevitably, this means that community and the peer group are extremely important in the determining whether individuals will engage in criminal activity. Like poor parenting, the peer group can certainly result in something less than desirable moral development. Who the kids hang out with makes a difference.

The place where most individuals encounter the peer group is in school and the educational system. That is often where children meet the other children with whom they will develop relationships. And the schools themselves clearly have a role to play. The learning process plays an important role in moral formation. The prisons are filled with individuals who have performed less than adequately in school. Often illiteracy is a problem and clearly there is a positive correlation between lack of linguistic skills and criminal behavior. But schools cannot provide the values, and emotional attachment to values that need to be instilled by family, church and community in general. Moreover, the inter-actions with other students-the peer group- is just as instrumental in moral formation as inter-action with teachers.

The important point in this discussion is that family, church and community must built moral citizens. That is the only answer to crime. Only by reinforcing the values that were traditionally instilled by caring parents and by surrounding developing children with a community that cares and that will instill positive values, can we hope to overcome criminal behaviors. Church and religious groups have a strong role to play in this process. It is a role that religion has traditionally played. In a sense, the increased rate of incarceration represents as much failure on the part of the church and religious organizations as on the part of law enforcement courts. It is not enough for the church and community to condemn evil, through the work of law enforcement. The traditional role of the Judeo-Christian heritage has been the advancement of positive good, and creation of strong citizens. The condemnation of evil does not solve the problem and bring about the solution.

The basic premise of this column is that we must find positive ways of dealing with all of the individuals in our society. A caring community social structure that supports families, churches and schools is the ultimate answer to the problem of crime. Law enforcement is very important, but is not the answer to the greatly increased rate of incarceration. No amount of emphasis on law enforcement and incarceration will provide a meaningful solution to the problem of crime. We actually must “accentuate the positive” if we are to “eliminate the negative.” We’ll develop further ideas related to this counterintuitive observation by exploring the ways that we incorrectly measure the success of the struggle against crime, and deal with offenders in the next few columns.


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