Evangelicals must get it right on crime
by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Friday, April 8, 2016, at 11:29 am
When it comes to complex social issues it is paramount to read deeply and widely before arriving at conclusions and positing proposals for reform. This lack of proper preparation and information gathering is occurring today as many evangelicals begin engaging the issue of mass incarceration. Consider the 2010 publication of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander: This book may inadvertently lead many well-meaning evangelicals in directions that do not address the core issues of mass incarceration in America.
Both conservative and progressive evangelicals cite Alexander as a starting point for thinking about the nation’s prison growth problem. Matthew Hall, writing for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, cites Alexander and concludes that “we can agree that a prison system that is incarcerating this many of our nation’s black men is scandalous.” D. A. Horton, writing on Ed Stetzer’s blog, recommends Alexander’s narrative in understanding “mass incarceration.” The Christian Community Development Association had Alexander headline its 2013 annual conference. Jim Wallis’ Sojourners magazine featured Alexander in its June 2014 issue advocating the race-based narrative of prison growth. But what if Alexander has gotten the narrative wrong? Then what?
John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University, highlights a devastating flaw in Alexander’s framework—that America’s prison growth is primarily a consequence of violent crime and property crime.
Pfaff observes that when you look at the actual data, “a majority of prison growth has come from locking up violent offenders, and a large majority of those admitted to prison never serve time for a drug charge, at least not as their ‘primary’ charge.” Alexander overlooks this data and, by extension, so does everyone who adopts it.
According to Pfaff, drug offenders comprise only 17 percent of state prison populations and account for roughly 20 percent of prison growth since 1980. This data is important given the fact that 90 percent of America’s prisoners are in state and not federal prisons. It seems that, perhaps, the likely two most important variables in prison growth are over-punishment at the hands of overzealous prosecutors—who have no accountability—and our nation’s increasingly punitive society where yesterday’s misdemeanors are today’s felonies.
Over-punishment and prosecutorial abuse also disproportionately affect lower class citizens.
Pfaff, looking at the data from 1980 to 2009, the peak years of the race-based narrative for drug-enforcement incarceration, notes:
“[S]tate prisons added a net 223,200 drug inmates, which is only 21 percent of the total net increase of 1,068,000. Conversely, the additional 551,000 violent offenders—an increase 2.4 times larger than that for drug offenders, despite a small percentage change—contributed over half of the net increase in prisoners; violent and property offenders combined contributed more than two-thirds. In other words, if no one was admitted to prison on a drug charge between 1980 and 2009, then the state prison population in 2009 would have been 1.12 million instead of 1.36 million: a 3.7-fold increase rather than a 4.5-fold one.”
Moreover, according to Pfaff, “if we were to release every inmate serving time for a drug offense in 2010, the total prison population would fall from 1,362,028 to 1,125,028.” The white population percentage would increase from 34.4 percent to 35.5 percent, the black population would decrease from 38.1 percent to 36.7 percent, and the Hispanic percentage would increase slightly from 21.2 percent to 21.5 percent. As such, if drug offenders where released from prison tomorrow, America would still have a massive prison growth problem.
If it is true that prison growth is a consequence of violence, violations of private property, out-of-control prosecutors, and an overly punitive society, then we need to ask different kinds of questions about the role of moral-virtue formation. What can Christians do to reduce violence? What can Christians do to keep people from violating private property? What can Christians do better to hold accountable and shape the moral conscience of prosecutors?
Without the moral discipleship of citizens and those working in the criminal justice system, there is only so much that can be accomplished by changing law-enforcement policy. A deeper engagement of this issue must be rooted in culture and society. The church is well-positioned to speak on moral formation and the proliferation of virtue in civil society.
Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.