Who’s Tough on Crime?

Restoring Communities

Last month when the Senate debated the omnibus crime bill, we witnessed a curious role reversal. Democrats seemed determined to steal the Republicans’ traditional reputation for being tough on crime. And Republicans, who like to accuse the Democrats of throwing money at problems, were themselves throwing money fast and furiously.

Each party wanted to lay claim to being tough on crime.

But what does it take to be tough on crime? The answer on Capitol Hill is simple: Put more cops on the beat to catch more criminals and build more prisons to house them all. But that assumes putting people behind bars is itself a tough anti-crime measure.

A serious misconception.

Putting people in prison does get them off the streets-but only temporarily. In a little while, they’re back again, meaner than ever. Two-thirds of people released from prison are rearrested within three years.

No one can pretend any longer that our criminal justice system strikes a tough blow at crime. Given today’s revolving-door prisons, it can actually be much tougher to impose alternative forms of punishment: house arrest, electronic surveillance, and community-based work programs.

Rick Templeton of Justice Fellowship has had firsthand experience with both forms of punishment. After being convicted he was first locked up in maximum-security state prison. Later he was transferred to a minimum-security prison where he was much less restricted and even went out to work during the day.

Ask Rick which regimen was “tougher” and he’ll answer without a moment’s hesitation: the work program. “Being required to get up every day, report in regularly, go to work, support my family-that was much more demanding than watching TV all day,” Rick says.

In states that offer convicted criminals a choice between prison and alternative programs, criminals overwhelmingly choose prison. They know which one is tougher.

The biblical teaching on justice does not call for simply warehousing criminals. It calls for restoring the peace-the shalom-of the community. In ancient Israel, when a thief was caught stealing, he didn’t sit passively in jail. Instead he had to work to pay back what he had stolen-with interest. When someone committed aggravated assault, he didn’t vegetate in a prison cell. Instead, he had to work to pay restitution to the victim-and repay his lost wages.

Work and community programs are socially redemptive, mending the tear in the social fabric caused by crime. Prison Fellowship operates programs that put prisoners to work rehabilitating inner-city homes and community centers. I’ve talked with countless participants who say they are grateful for the chance to pay society back-to make up for evil deeds with good deeds.

The Senate version of the crime bill includes funding for the development of alternative punishment, but in the House a similar measure was voted down. Why don’t you call your own representatives in Congress and tell them you support the Senate version on this issue.

Alternative punishment is the real way to get tough on crime-because it requires criminals to change from the inside out.


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