Editor’s note: Is America’s justice system really a system of injustice? Charles Colson, the former special counsel to President Nixon who served seven months in a federal prison for Watergate scandal complicity, has authored a new book that raises this question and proposes some novel ideas for reform. Today, WorldNetDaily commences the first of a two-series excerpted from “Justice That Restores,” by Colson, who now heads Prison Fellowship Ministries and also founded Justice Fellowship.
We often think that crime happens only to other people or that honest people, such as clergy, are safe from its effects. This is not always true.
Consider, for example, the robbery at the rectory of a Catholic priest in Annandale, Virginia. A break-in occurred in the middle of the night, trapping the priest in his bedroom. According to one report, the priest took his pistol from its box and “ordered the stranger to freeze and lie on the floor.” When the intruder didn’t stop, the priest was forced to fire his weapon and chased the intruder down the hall. The intruder stopped to confront the priest two more times, and each time the priest fired his weapon – once at the robber’s feet and the other “wide of his target.” After the third shot, the man fled with a small amount of cash.
In other places the rise of such assaults have provoked some strange responses. Take, for example, the unusual measures some members of the British clergy are taking. Provoked by a series of assaults on its ministers, including the stabbing death of a priest in Liverpool, the Church of England urged its clergy to take preventive measures such as installing panic buttons in their pulpits. Quick to sense an emerging market, Ivan Silversmiths now offers, in both sterling and gold plate, items called “personal security crucifixes.” According to the promotional materials, a tug on the crucifix will emit an ear-piercing sound that is audible for 150 yards. The cost is 200 pounds (around $480), a bit steep, but perhaps reasonable in view of the device’s collateral uses: It must be very effective in waking up a somnolent congregation.
Although I don’t own a personal security crucifix, I must say that it has captured my imagination because it is at once a sacred sign of the Atonement and a grim sign of the times we live in. As to the latter, the statistics do indeed paint a dismal picture.
Consider the sheer number of people in prisons. When I was incarcerated in 1974, I was one of 218,466 men and women in American prisons. Today, twenty-five years later, there are 1.3 million Americans in federal and state prisons – and another 600,000 in local and county jails. (By the time this book hits the stores, the number is projected to have topped 2 million.) Comparing prisons alone, that is a sixfold increase.
Crime has increased just as dramatically. From 1960 to 1998, crime overall increased nearly 300 percent, violent crime nearly 500 percent. You may have heard that crime rates have dropped recently in the United States. Property crime is indeed down by 32 percent since 1993, and violent crime has dropped 27 percent.
But this is not due to some sudden success in criminal justice and penal policies. It is mostly due to demographic factors: The so-called baby boomers, the large cohort of those born in the optimistic years right after World War II, are maturing out of the crime-prone age.
Another factor accounting for these trends is the incredible prison-building boom, which has incapacitated a large number of criminals and prevented their continuing to commit crimes – for a time at least. Some of the decrease is also due to the significant spread of more effective approaches to policing and to developing community programs, which will be addressed later. Yet, even after the drop, the total is still extraordinarily high – and most demographic projections suggest that crime is due for another rise as soon as the children of baby boomers reach the crime-prone age groups and as revolving-door prisons graduate new classes of hardened criminals.
The problem is not solved; it will likely only worsen. The recidivism rate remains largely unchanged – around 70 percent – so if there were approximately 200,000 people in prisons in 1974, there were approximately 140,000 repeat offenders; if there are 2 million people in prisons today, we should expect 1,400,000 repeat offenders. The huge prison bulge may temporarily slow down crime, as it apparently has, but as offenders are released, the number of new crimes can be expected to skyrocket.
Most alarming is the fact that much of the increase in crime, particularly violent crimes, has come from juveniles. A growing core of the criminal population is getting younger and meaner. Arrests of juveniles for violent crime grew from 18,165 in 1960 to 74,682 in 1983 and to 123,400 in 1997.
Between 1984 and 1994 the number of teen homicides nearly tripled from 800 to 2,300.
Despite the fact that the youth murder rate has fallen 39 percent since 1994, a young black man in an American city has a greater chance of being killed by gunfire than if he had been an infantryman in Vietnam.
Even more alarming are the future projections. Children of the baby boomers are entering the crime-prone age groups in record numbers; the juvenile sector of the population will rise 2 percent a year for the next decade.
This is an ominous trend when one realizes that among these young men and women is a core of increasingly dangerous and alienated youths – what one criminologist calls the “super-predators.”
There are more than 800,000 youth gang members in the United States, which means that there are more of them than there are U.S. Marines – and I wouldn’t bet that the Marines are better armed.
But even more chilling than the plain numbers is the changing character of crime. Historically, crimes fit the pattern of a good Sherlock Holmes story. Elementary, Watson: Find the motive, and you will find the criminal. That is no longer the case. Today many crimes are done without motive, unless one considers wanting another kid’s jacket a serious motive for murder. The single greatest threat to any society is what we are today witnessing: crimes committed by young men and women without consciences, acts of violence and rebellion that are self-justified and perverse.
Consider just this sample of recent horrors:
- In the spring of 1999, two otherwise normal, middle-class young people, 17 and 18 years old, raced through Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, executing in cold blood twelve students and one teacher. America was shocked, and remains in shock, at the gruesome display of raw, naked evil. These boys, disciples of Nietzsche and admirers of Hitler, enjoyed killing. “Do you believe in God?” one shooter asked a girl. When she said yes, he asked why but never gave her a chance to answer. He fired point-blank into her face.
- The Littleton incident, horrid though it was, was but the latest in a series of school killings, all equally senseless. Pearl, Mississippi; West Paducah, Kentucky; and Jonesboro, Arkansas, where two clean-cut kids who looked like “the kids next door” took up positions outside the school, rang the fire alarm, and then took dead aim, as snipers would, gunning down their classmates filing out of the school.
- In Oakland, California, in 1993 a woman was running down the street to escape an attacker, only to be tripped by a bystander. As she lay helpless, her assailant stabbed her brutally — and the crowd kept shouting, “Kill her, kill her.” It was murder for the sport and pleasure of the crowd — a regression to the moral sewer into which the Roman Empire fell in the era immediately preceding its collapse.
- Two children, one a 10-year-old and the other an 11-year-old, admitted dropping a 5-year-old from the fourteenth floor window of a Chicago housing project because the 5-year-old refused to steal candy.
- Two teen-age boys in New Jersey ordered a pizza. When the deliveryman arrived, they killed him in cold blood, leaving the pizzas uneaten and strewn in the snow. “They just wanted to see what it would be like to kill somebody,” explained a law enforcement official after interviewing them. Perversely, the idea caught on, and a wave of copycat crimes followed.
- Two New York City teenagers, one from a wealthy family and attending a fashionable school, for no apparent reason killed a stranger walking through Central Park. Then they disemboweled him, disfigured his face, and left him floating in a pond in the park. This is the story so shockingly told in William Golding’s modern classic “Lord of the Flies” coming to life in our midst. Could nice, civilized young boys who were products of good schools become mere animals? That was the question. The answer, empirically demonstrated, is that some can and do.
- A few years ago, Melissa Drexler, while attending her high school prom, excused herself from her boyfriend to go to the washroom, where in a few minutes she gave birth to a full-term child. She then straightened out her dress, washed her hands, put the baby in a sack, and dropped him in a trash bin. Rejoining her boyfriend, she asked the orchestra to play her favorite song, which happened to be entitled “Unforgiven.” She danced away the rest of the evening, seeming to enjoy herself, classmates reported, and she seemed really surprised when she was arrested. One psychiatrist said of Drexler that to her the baby was simply a foreign object, like a “peach pit.”
Examples just as horrid abound among the record 2,300 murders committed in 1994 by American teen-agers (up from only 800 a decade earlier).
The horror of all this came home to me in an unforgettable way a few years ago when I visited the Indiana State Penitentiary at Michigan City. It was my fourth visit during a 20-year span. I walked the cellblocks that day and experienced something I’ve rarely encountered in the 600 prisons I’ve visited around the world: some men refused to come to the bars to speak. Two approached the bars out of curiosity but then refused to shake my outstretched hand. Those who did talk stared at me through the bars – they seemed mere children – with vacant expressions and cold, steely, hard eyes. As I left the cellblock, I put my hand on the shoulder of one man sitting on a chair, only to have him brush it away angrily. I’ve never seen such hostility.
Then as we assembled in the yard, I saw something I thought I never would see again in America. The black inmates sat on one side of the prison yard, the white inmates on the other. When Mike Singletary, an African-American athlete of some renown, addressed the inmates, only the black inmates responded. When I spoke, only the white ones responded.
When the speeches were over, I turned to the assistant warden, an old friend of mine and a Christian. “This place has changed,” I told him.
“Changed?” he replied. “I guess it has. Ten years ago I could talk to these guys about right and wrong. Today they have no idea what I’m talking about.”
The assistant warden went on to tell me that in the past the principal administrative problem in prisons had been protecting the younger convicts from the older ones who tended to be predators. Today, he said, the principal administrative problem in prisons is protecting older convicts from the kids coming in off the streets. Other officials have told me the same thing.
We know that all human beings have a conscience, as the apostle Paul tells us in Romans 1 and 2, and yet conscience must be trained; civilized habits and behaviors must be cultivated by moral teaching and discipline. As C. S. Lewis said, “The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments.”
The sad conclusion one must draw from the cases I have related, and many, many others, is that we have simply failed in this most basic task of civilizing society through inattention to the moral and spiritual development of our children. The result is a generation with suppressed and deadened consciences.
Many of our young people act like savage children, lacking any human characteristic of decency, respect for life, and concern (if not compassion) for others. Many young people see no difference between operating a video game and thrill-killing a pizza deliveryman or a bystander on the street. In fact, video games are similar to military training in one very chilling respect: Both train people to shoot and kill lifelike characters, thereby dismantling the natural human disinclination to kill another human being. The difference, of course, is that soldiers absorb this training in a moral context that also stresses love of country, devotion to comrades, and compassion toward the helpless; video games, on the other hand, and the street culture that they reflect and reinforce, revere none of those values.
This disregard for human life and dignity cannot be dismissed as just another social phenomenon: It is a huge, gaping crack in the foundation of civilized society. It threatens our very survival.
TOMORROW: Toward a solution.