A Mirror to Our Morals

Why Building Prisons Is Not Enough

Just before it adjourned last month, the Senate debated an omnibus crime bill. The debate looked for all the world like an auction with each side of the aisle trying to out-bid the other.

Ladies and gentlemen, on the block today is a lovely proposal for more police and more prisons. Do I hear $10 billion? $20 billion?

Sold, to the American people for $22 billion.

As often happens at auctions, the Senate bid more money than its budget will cover. But the sobering truth is that we will never outspend our nation’s burgeoning crime wave. Over the past thirty years America increased its prison population fourfold. But over the same period, the crime rate rose by the same amount.

More alarming, violent crime increased 560 percent, which means that the nature of crime has changed. Kids who used to steal hubcaps now rape and murder.

Many of these juvenile offenders treat serious crimes almost casually. In Brooklyn, a teenager walked into the lobby of a housing project just as an elevator door was closing. Like a kid who can’t resist shoving his foot in the door, the boy shoved the muzzle of an assault rifle into the door and pulled the trigger, killing one man and injuring two others.

What we’re witnessing is the rise of crime without conscience: kids who have no sense of right and wrong. In psychiatry this is called psychopathic behavior. Today it’s called commonplace behavior.

Even “nice” kids show signs of having lost their moral compass. A Josephson Institute study found that about a third of all high-school aged teens have stolen from a store. Two-thirds have cheated on exams. And the younger the age, the more cynical the attitude toward moral questions.

The fact is that crime is merely an extreme expression of a moral relativism pervading all levels of society. As Myron Magnet argues in The Dream and the Nightmare, dangerous crime has grown from dangerous ideas.

Beginning with intellectuals and artists, Western elites denied the existence of a universal, transcendent moral standard. Morality was defined as subjective, an idea that hit the streets in the phrase “do your own thing.” And criminals did.

Ideas and values. These are what determine whether people commit crimes or not. As Magnet puts it, “Do we deeply believe thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal so deeply that these injunctions are a constituent part of our deepest selves?”

The most powerful curb on crime is not external force. It’s the internal guidance of conscience?informed by transcendent moral precepts.

The auctioneers in Congress will soon be back to hammer out a final version of the crime bill. I say they should shelve the whole costly project and bid on more modest proposals, just enough to meet the current crisis. Then we can direct our attention to the deeper need: devising policies that strengthen families, schools, and neighborhood programs, where real moral education takes place.

Unless we find ways to cultivate conscience, we will never build enough prisons or hire enough police.

And the next round of auctions may well bankrupt us.


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