Not Out of the Woods

In a recent meeting with the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, I was peppered with questions about impeachment—but then almost as many about why crime is falling so dramatically. The drop in crime is certainly heartening, as I told the editors. But we shouldn't start celebrating too soon. Last year the number of crimes dropped below 3 million for the first time since 1973. Both violent and property crimes have declined by more than 20 percent since 1993. The murder rate is the lowest in 30 years. Why is this happening? One Wall Street Journal editor offered the conventional explanation: the prison-building boom of the past 20 years, which has increased the U.S. prison population by 500 percent. When I was released in 1975, there were 240,000 people in prison; today 1.7 million are behind bars. Obviously this has had an effect—but it is necessarily temporary. The prison system is like a barrel full of water: Pour in a gallon, and a gallon will spill back out. The more people in prison, the more people who will eventually come back out. And the painful truth is that the rate of criminals who become repeat offenders remains the same, stubbornly high. Other factors are likewise temporary. For example, demographics: The aging of the baby boomers has contributed to the decrease in crime by putting vast numbers beyond the crime-prone years (roughly 14 to 24). But here's the kicker: The boomers' children are just now reaching the crime-prone age group in huge numbers—and many are much tougher than their parents. The mean streets are about to get meaner. Only one thing can be credited with making a permanent difference in crime rates: faith-based programs. When Prison Fellowship (PF) started in 1976, there was only a scattering of prison ministries across the country. Today Prison Fellowship alone has more than 46,000 volunteers, and 100,000 more at Christmastime delivering Angel Tree gifts. Volunteer ministry is going on in 1,400 prisons. And many other good ministries have been drawn to the mission field as well. How lasting are the effects? In New York State, an independent study showed that the recidivism rate was 41 percent for the general prison population. But for those who attended 10 or more Prison Fellowship Bible studies in a year, the recidivism rate was only 14 percent—down by two thirds! And in Detroit, PF's Transition of Prisoners program (TOP) takes hardened inmates with a history of drug addiction and repeat incarceration and enrolls them in an intensive, church-based mentoring program. TOP's recidivism rate is under 18 percent. We must not delude ourselves into thinking we've solved the crime problem merely by filling up prisons. Most of those 1.7 million people are one day going to be released into our communities. The big question is what shape they come back in. The drop in the crime rate is good news. But it will be nothing but the lull before the storm unless we redouble our efforts. Only Christians understand the real root of crime: the moral breakdown in the human heart. And we see from these studies that, when the Gospel is presented and received, those lives are genuinely transformed. It's a good apologetic you can give your neighbors, and a challenge to the Church to live out the Gospel to redeem, rebuild, and restore our culture.


Chuck Colson


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