Stephanos Bibas, a professor of law and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, has written a thoughtful piece in National Review on the state of incarceration in the United States. Challenging presumptions of both left and right, Bibas argues that an effective system of corrections is one that holds people responsible for their behavior, but also seeks to forgive and restore those who have served their sentences.
Beginning with a litany of facts—the United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world; the country has a quarter of the world’s prisoners, despite having less than one-twentieth of the world’s population; the prison population has increased by a factor of seven since the mid-1970s—the author examines the reasons for the pronounced spike in imprisonment. He questions the popular liberal narrative that increased incarceration is, as Ohio State law professor Michelle Alexander describes it, “A comprehensive and well-disguised system of radicalized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.” Bibas asserts that the main impetus for prison growth since the 1980s has been violent crimes and crimes against property, not non-violent drug offenses that have disproportionately affected black males. He also argues that to cast the entire system as premeditated racism fails to acknowledge the actual behavior that has in most cases led to incarceration in the first place.
But while liberal commentators have misrepresented what has led to the current state of mass imprisonment, Bibas claims conservative pundits have erred in supporting the status quo, and have done damage to families and communities while adopting a “lock them up and throw away the key” mentality. The shift from short corporal punishment (followed by some form of restitution), to a warehousing approach that results in a “permanent underclass of ex-cons,” has had a profound impact on society. Bilbas says:
… Now we warehouse large numbers of criminals, in idleness and at great expense. By exiling them, often far away, prison severs them from their responsibilities to their families and communities, not to mention separating them from opportunities for gainful work. This approach is hugely disruptive, especially when it passes a tipping point in some communities and exacerbates the number of fatherless families. And much of the burden falls on innocent women and children, who lose a husband, boyfriend, or father as well as a breadwinner.
And the punishment does not end at the prison gate. Men and women who have served a sentence for a felony offense return with no job, a lack of any real earning potential, and legal disqualification for some employment, housing, and student loans. Citing a study by University of Michigan economics professor Michael Mueller-Smith, Bilbas says that a year of incarceration reduces the odds of employment by 24 percent, while increasing the odds of reliance on governmental assistance like food stamps.
The belief that the threat of imprisonment serves as a deterrent to criminal behavior is overblown, Bilbas says, because it fails to understand that most crimes are not entered into with with great foresight. “At its root,” he says, “crime is generally a failure of self-discipline. … [Criminals] are short-sighted gamblers; who else would risk getting shot or arrested in order to steal $300 and a six-pack of beer from a convenience store?”
Bilbas asserts that religion and religious communities are vital to the transformation of prisoner to citizen. “[F]aith-based programs like Prison Fellowship Ministries can transform cell blocks from wards of idleness or violence to orderly places of prayer, repentance, education, and work. After inmates are released, these faith-based groups can also perform much of the oversight, community reintegration, fellowship, and prayer that returning inmates need.”
A successful justice system, Bilbas says, is one that “reweaves” the fabric of criminals’ families and communities. “The more that punishment exacerbates the breakdown of families and communities,” he says, “the more overweening state and its social services and law enforcement grow to fill the resulting void.”
“American criminal justice has drifted away from its moral roots,” Bilbas concludes. “The Left has forgotten how to blame and punish, and too often the Right has forgotten how to forgive. … Criminals deserve punishment, but it is wise as well as humane to temper justice with mercy.”
Such a an approach of justice tempered by mercy is at the root of Prison Fellowship’s efforts to transform lives affected by crime. Through our Justice Fellowship program, Prison Fellowship seeks to renew a system that too often punishes with little eye toward restoration. And with the help of many churches and volunteers across the country, Prison Fellowship works to transform and restore men and women behind bars to their families and their communities. To learn more about how you can be a part of promoting a just and merciful corrections system, visit our Get Involved page.