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Culture Q&A

Anthony Bradley

Why so many criminals?

How modern justice system practices miss the heart of the problem

Why so many criminals?

Anthony Bradley (Marilynn K. Yee/Genesis)

Anthony Bradley chairs the Religious and Theological Studies program at The King’s College and is the author of Black and Tired and other books: He is writing Ending Overcriminalization and Mass Incarceration: Hope From Civil Society, a book about changing America’s criminal justice system. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation in front of students at Patrick Henry College.

How did you move from a biology major at Clemson to a seminary degree and a theology professorship? I went to college wanting to be a physician, because a doctor can have a nice house and nice cars and a house on a lake. But when I encountered the truth of the gospel in the context of a personal crisis, mostly me being dumped by a girl, I was broken and awakened to the doctrines of grace. Next thing I knew I was growing into seminary. And that was how the trajectory went.

Have you been able to thank that girl for dumping you? I haven’t. However, I’ve seen her on social media, and I think I dodged a bullet.

The new generation of college students sometimes called Generation Z: Have they typically discovered the doctrines of grace? They’ve been saturated in the doctrines of grace, so it’s not impressive or new to them. They were not raised in a Christianity that was fighting legalism. Their world is and has always been grace, grace, grace, grace, grace. So when they hear the doctrines of grace, they’re like, “Yeah, what’s the big deal?” There’s not as much of an understanding that grace also enables you to be the kind of person that God intends for you to be. They believe they need to somehow make those things come to pass.

‘The juvenile system sees itself as a replacement for the family, but it’s been an abysmal failure.’

Do they have a kind of perfectionism? This cohort of students has been raised in Christian contexts where they have to be the perfect Christians, have to have the perfect grades, have to be in the perfect relationships, have to have the perfect manners, be the perfect athlete, and be successful for Christ. They have to be perfect for the Lord or for the kingdom. That causes secondarily a large amount of anxiety and depression. Christian college students have a lot of anxiety about whether or not they are being good enough for God. Perfect enough to meet their parents’ demands for perfect grades, a perfect career, a perfect life.

On this 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, these students sound a lot like Martin Luther in certain ways—“Am I good enough?” It’s not necessarily “Am I good enough to escape eternal punishment?” It’s rather, “Am I good enough to fulfill the mission that I’ve been told constitutes being a good Christian or a great Christian?” So, “Am I a good Christian if I’m not a senator, a judge, saving orphans from sex slavery in India? If I’m not doing something extraordinary for God, then I’m not good enough. So my life has to be Snapchat- or Instagram-worthy to be impressive and sufficient for the Lord.”

But your current research is on those declared by the judicial system not good enough to stay out of jail. We incarcerate more citizens than any other country in the entire world. We currently have about 2.5 million people in state and federal prisons. If you look at the numbers of those who are currently under the oversight of the criminal justice system, it’s about 7 million if you include probation and parole.

Russia and China are certainly more repressive than the United States, but we have a much higher percentage of our population incarcerated. Why? Our culture no longer relies on civil societal institutions as a way to mediate deviants and to deal with delinquency: The only thing we have left is law. Today, when we get mad at someone for breaking the social contract, we lock him up. We don’t push people back on their families to handle. We simply remove them from those contexts and put them off to the side.

Many already had family problems. Close to 78 percent of those who enter the criminal justice system either in adolescence or in early adulthood (18, 19, 20) have suffered some form of childhood neglect or abuse. Sometimes physical abuse, sometimes neglect in terms of food deprivation, not having adequate housing, or not receiving warm affection.

And we’ve criminalized truancy? Those deprived from birth to age 11 tend to act out when they reach adolescence. Today, in a lot of cities, we have policemen in schools, so acting out doesn’t lead to detention, it leads to arrest. In Virginia, a 14-year-old was charged with petty larceny because he stole a carton of milk from the cafeteria. When I was in school, if you stole a milk from the cafeteria, you would have to pay for it, you might get detention, or you might have to spend an hour in a room writing “I will not steal milk from the cafeteria” on the chalkboard. Today, you get handcuffed and sent to jail.

Strange. We have lost the imagination for all of the other possibilities for dealing with deviance and delinquency. There’s a lot of prosecutorial overreach. The juvenile system sees itself as a replacement for the family, but it’s been an abysmal failure.

Do we need to lock up as many people as we do to reduce the amount of violence that will be inflicted on innocent bystanders? Are we a less violent culture because we’ve removed a very small demographic from the population? We’re not less violent: We’ve simply renegotiated how we handle violence. But from a distinctly Christian perspective, we want to create a culture that is less violent, and encourage people to resolve their issues in nonviolent ways. We want a culture where the number of people who have suffered neglect and abuse declines, so acting out in aggressive ways happens less and less in time.

Most people in prison are parents, so if we incarcerate more people, unless it’s necessary for public safety, aren’t we reducing future public safety by leaving more kids deprived of parenting—which makes it more likely that those kids will end up in prison? Absolutely. The likelihood of being involved in violent and aggressive behavior, their own sexual promiscuity, their being introduced to gang-related activity, their involvement in alcohol abuse—all of those things are negative outcomes associated with being disconnected from parents in many of these communities. We’re typically replicating and sustaining cultures of deprivation, which tend to lead to the types of activities that get people arrested later on.

Families typically civilize not only kids but adults. The person incarcerated is missing out on something that would really help him develop, and the kids are missing out. So, removing a person from society creates longer-term problems? The affectionate interaction of parents and children increases the level of empathy and compassion for both, and for their neighbors. We’re losing out on opportunities for cultivating communities where compassion and empathy govern the relationships between people and their neighbors, as opposed to defensiveness, protection, and violence.


  • Dick Friedrich
    Posted: Mon, 10/09/2017 11:24 pm

    Are we blaming the prison system or incarcaration for the break up of families? If we undermine authority in families and schools by relying on police to keep order why would we expect fewer crimes or less prosecution? Maybe a contributing cause is not backing up teachers and parents when they enforce healthy and proper discipline. But we've undermined that authority in so many ways and left the "discipline" to the formal criminal justice system. We won't solve the problem by simply not prosecuting crime. When we start expecting adults to be proper adults we might see improvements in less crime etc. Certainly this would entail a less litigious society where teachers might be not be sued for administering discipline. Oh but our culture has gotten to the point where even healthy discipline is redefined as abuse. 

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Tue, 10/10/2017 02:16 am

    You have to be kidding if you believe a "father" should be let out of prison so he will train up his children. For every one who did it right you would probably have thirty who would train them up into being hardcore punks, making trouble, stealing cars, street fighting, banging up women (boys), getting pregnant (girls), killing cops, and so much more trouble. Certainly, I believe Christ makes all the difference and Christians need to work in the jails, but I don't hold to the liberal notion of rehabilitation apart from Christ. We should even hold to the belief that prison is punishment for their crime.  You are correct that sometimes the book is thrown at youth, where a good spanking would suffice, like in the old days. Years ago they would also let young troubled youth, make a choice between jail or serving in the military. I met a bunch of these guys in the military and many of them got their lives turned around where they were doing something constructive. I am not sure if they are still doing this, but would suspect that this is rarely done today.

  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Tue, 10/10/2017 12:04 pm

    Good article and thought provoking but never answers the salient point of "Close to 78 percent of those who enter the criminal justice system either in adolescence or in early adulthood (18, 19, 20) have suffered some form of childhood neglect or abuse. Sometimes physical abuse, sometimes neglect in terms of food deprivation, not having adequate housing, or not receiving warm affection."

    Why is it that our society is afraid to address this question?

  • JerryM
    Posted: Fri, 10/13/2017 07:57 am

    "Our culture no longer relies on civil societal institutions as a way to mediate deviants and to deal with delinquency"

    Doesn't the World magazine compassion award profile many of these organisations? 

  • Deb O's picture
    Deb O
    Posted: Wed, 10/11/2017 12:38 pm

    I agree that we as a society don't want to get to the root of the problem. I think it's because the root is too messy, too big and would require us Christians to get too involved. Society/culture/community/family is utterly broken, and the brave and loving Christian ministries who are truly fighting the good fight are like a garden hose against a raging, spreading wildfire.

    Thank you, World, for continuing to feature Mr. Bradley's writing and thoughts. We need to step out of the echo chamber every once in awhile to be provoked and prodded to think in a way that doesn't routinely appear on our Facebook feed.