Building Moral Muscles

It’s the crack of dawn, and 30 young men are marching in formation. Striding alongside them is Sergeant Roger Redd, a Vietnam veteran whose sharp eyes miss nothing. "Don’t show me a grin, I’m not a dentist," Redd bellows at a smiling young man. The rows of marching men look like raw recruits. But they’re not soldiers—they’re criminals. They’re marching, not through boot camp, but across the parking lot of the Cumberland County Courthouse in Fayetteville, North Carolina. And who’s the man leading them on this 5 A.M. hike? He’s a court bailiff, who spends his spare time taking kids in trouble and turning their lives around. As a court bailiff, Redd watches teenagers stream in and out of court, most of them headed for prison. Five years ago Redd decided to do something about it. He built a court-approved training program that provides exactly what Redd believes these young men need: a muscular dose of physical and moral discipline. Redd spends three months with each batch of teens, mixing basic drills with homilies about honesty, integrity, and responsibility. Redd also invites the teens out to breakfast and to church, and assists with job interviews. Redd’s goal, as he told the journal Policy Review, is to "teach personal responsibility and break the [teens] of their ‘I’m a victim’ mentality." "Every decision has a consequence," he tells the young offenders. "You decided to break the law. You made a mistake, but now you’re going to profit from it. You’re going to [learn to] do right." Redd’s regimen may sound a lot like boot camps, which have become a popular weapon in the war on youth crime. The idea is that boot camps would give kids the structure and discipline they aren’t getting at home. But most boot camps have a dismal failure rate. Hunter Hurst is a boot camp alumnus, who is now the director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice. As Hurst explains, "When given commands, we were trained to respond like circus animals." But "when our ‘trainers’ weren’t there," he says, "we would tear the place up." Boot camps fail to change criminals because they are little more than behavior modification programs. But that’s where Redd’s regimen parts company with traditional boot camps. Sergeant Redd knows that crime is not a simple breakdown that can be fixed by treating kids as stimulus-response mechanisms. Crime is a sickness of the soul. And the cure has to be sought in the deep wells of spiritual and moral tradition. The proof is in Redd’s success rate. Of the 875 kids who have begun Redd’s program, 775 have completed it. Most impressive of all, only 15 of Redd’s graduates have ever been charged with subsequent crimes, compared to 60 percent of graduates of traditional boot camps. Criminal justice officials say they know of no other program anywhere that comes near Redd’s success rate. You and I ought to support programs like the one Sergeant Roger Redd runs—a program where 5 A.M. hikes across a parking lot team up with lessons in moral discipline.  


Chuck Colson


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