Breaking the Cycle

It’s rare that I can report truly good news on the criminal justice front. But here it is: On Monday, the Associated Press reported that between 1997 and 2008, juvenile arrest rates have dropped 33 percent.

In fact, several states whose adult prisons are literally bursting at the seams are actually shutting down juvenile facilities because, well, they don’t need them.

Criminal justice experts don’t have a single-theory explanation for the fact that fewer juveniles are running afoul of the law. But Elliot Currie, a criminologist at the University of California-Irvine, points to “the accumulation” of small results from communities and states steering away from the “lock them up and throw away the key” approach. Instead, the AP reports, many believe that programs such as “group homes, halfway houses and after-school tutoring closer to kids’ homes have reduced recidivism.”

These are things we at Prison Fellowship have advocated for years. And I’m thrilled to see people getting the message.

Because they have to. It is so critical for the health of our communities and our nation that we reach these kids before they develop into hardened criminals—the kind I’ve encountered in over 30 years of prison ministry.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many men and women I’ve met behind bars who were in trouble at an early age, growing up with a mom or dad in prison, getting involved with the wrong crowd. It staggers me, actually, as I think about it.

But it shouldn’t be surprising that so many of these prisoners share what could only be called a “rough” childhood. I often cite the groundbreaking 1996 study and subsequent book, Crime and Human Nature, by Richard J. Herrnstein and James Q. Wilson, then at Harvard. They determined that crime is caused by the lack of moral training in the morally formative years. Note that carefully.

Indeed, modern neuroscience has discovered that the brain continues to develop into a person’s early 20s. The balance between planning and impulse control and the connection between reason and emotion remain a work in progress into early adulthood.

What this means, first and foremost, is that kids needs guidance. Without the proper intervention, they are prone to make mistakes that could mar them for life. Especially is this true of the children of prisoners and other at-risk kids who don’t have the safety net that other kids take for granted.

That’s why Prison Fellowship and churches across the country have reached out to more than 7 million children of prisoners over the course of nearly 30 years through Angel Tree. That’s why Prison Fellowship volunteers have mentored the children of prisoners; why churches have worked with PF to send prisoners’ kids to Christian summer camps. And why, especially, Prison Fellowship seeks to reconcile prisoners’ families, reconciling prisoners and their children.

I can’t help but think these efforts by Christians across the country have contributed to some degree to the good news of declining juvenile crime.

And as all the evidence points to, that bodes very well for the future.

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