The State of Crime in America

The State of Crime in America

It happened in my own city just recently, not far from my home.

Four or five men, at least some of them armed, cut power to a house and broke a window to gain access. Once inside, they kidnapped a young husband and took him for a car ride. One of the perpetrators remained behind to guard the man’s wife and toddler son.

The men in the car were discussing stolen items the kidnappers thought the victim had obtained. Then the perpetrators realized they had the wrong man.

In the meantime, the man who remained with the wife and child decided to make the most of his waiting time. He raped the woman.

When the kidnappers and husband returned to the home, the wife told her story. At that point, both perpetrators and victims began to attack the rapist. Apparently there is a modicum of honor among some thieves.

“It’s really something you can’t make up,” said a local police lieutenant.

Such news stories are remarkable in their strangeness and frightening in our imagination. People with bad intentions enter a home in a short amount of time with no apparent difficulty.  It could happen to us, we think. The horror of rape and the terror of being dragged away from the haven of home, wife, and child gnaw at the depths of our fears.

Two have been arrested in the case. The city waits as police search for the two or three others suspected to have participated in the break-in.

Gallup notes that more than half of us are worried “a great deal” about crime.  It seems to be getting worse, more pervasive, more insidious.

But violent crime rates have largely been dropping for 20 years.  Even factoring in an increase of more than six percent in murders during the first half of 2015 in America’s bigger cities, people in urban areas are safer than they were 30 years ago

A notable exception in 2016 is Chicago. Murder rates for America’s largest cities are slated to have increased by 14 percent this year.  But in Chicago the increase is a whopping 43.7 percent.

News of these increases plus coverage of incidents of terrorism may have created our perception that overall crime rates are increasing.

Perception is not always reality.

In 2011, US cities noted a significant drop in violent crimes. That was at the height of the “Great Recession.” Increased economic distress did not cause an increase in crime. In fact, crime rates continued the downward trend they had been taking since the 1990s.

What we don’t know is exactly why crime dropped so significantly since that time.  And we also don’t know whether this increase in city crime is a trend that will take us back to the levels of crime we saw then.

From a Christian perspective, crime should be rising. We are three generations away from Bible reading in the schools. Fifty years after objective moral standards of behavior were the order of the day.  Our understanding of this shift in society’s perspective no doubt explains, at least for the Christian community, why our perceptions of crime rates are so different from these falling crime rates.

The theories of why crime decreased abound.  Some that have been debunked (or at least receive minimal credit) are that the legalization of abortion eliminated potential criminals; the distribution of Prozac and Ritalin has calmed others down; and the aging baby boomer generation outgrew its propensity for bad behavior.  

A more credible theory is what the Marshall Project calls the “Prison Boom,” accounting for 10 to 20 percent of the reduction in crime.  Some dispute the connection between filling our prisons and reduced crime.  But even considering it as a viable cause still leaves 80 to 90 percent of the decline in crime unexplained.  

Many crimes are committed by people who’ve already done at least one stint in prison.  Some criminals hone their skills when they’re inside.  But not everyone who leaves prison returns.

One proven method of rehabilitating the incarcerated is education.

In April of 1992 as I was finishing my last semester of college classes, I went on my first job interview.  The interviewer was looking to hire a teacher for a nearby state correctional institution.  He seemed to like some of my qualifications, but in spite of my two college classes in criminal justice, he didn’t seem to think that my experience as a Sunday school teacher had adequately prepared me to deal with inmates in the classroom.  I have to admit he had a point.  

Within the next year, the job I had sought fell victim to a “get tough on crime” mentality that swept the nation “eliminating 350 postsecondary programs in 37 states.”  Today, there is no federally funded education program for prisoners.  But several states provide such programs—and they see very good results.

Missouri found that recidivism rates were nearly cut in half when prisoners accessed training programs, saving the state $25,000 on average every year.

And then there are Christian based programs like the one Charles Colson began.  Colson had been President Richard Nixon’s advisor and was sentenced to prison in connection with the Watergate scandal. Colson came to Christ before being sentenced.  He entered prison a changed man. He exited determined to make a difference for those still behind prison bars.  He formed Prison Fellowship to carry out this ministry.  The effort has gone around the world.

This organization has ministered to men, women, and children—children who may never commit a crime because of their exposure to the Gospel.  Children who may gain parents who will be responsible and productive citizens.  And there are numbers to back up the difference Prison Fellowship makes.

Participation in Prison Fellowship Bible studies reduces recidivism by 66 percent.  Prisoners in Christian faith-based programs return to jail at half the rate of those who participate only in vocational programs.

In spite of the success of vocational and Christian programs, there is another force at work behind America’s prison doors.  Christians are not the only ones working to influence America’s incarcerated.  Some estimates say that between 40,000 and 135,000 prisoners convert to Islam every year.  Perhaps 80 percent of all who convert to a faith become Muslim.  And many of them are radicalized.

That’s one way extremists foster homegrown terrorism.  It’s one reason we perceive crime is on the rise.

Effectively fighting the tide of homegrown terrorism as well as the increased costs (financial and social) of incarceration will require a herculean effort from the Church.  There is a legitimate role for government in forming a truly corrective system.  

But a prison system in an increasingly secularized society won’t provide the mercy and grace of Christ to restore citizens who have fallen.  And that’s where the Church, aside from Colson’s program and others like it, has not lived up to the scriptural command to “remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated.”  

We are to “Fear not.”  We are light in the world.  We are to call those in darkness out into the light.


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