There is a growing unnoticed social crisis in our nation that must be understood and addressed. With more citizens (per capita) incarcerated than any other nation, overcrowded prisons in America have become a social crisis. The prisons and local jails are simply unable to sustain the current flow of new prisoners.
While the strain on State and local budgets is usually the point that forces attention on the issue, the greater concern must be the lives affected by this crisis. But how can we do the work of prevention when overwhelmed with a crisis?
One out of every 100 Americans lives behind bars. Based on Justice Department figures within the decade, one in 36 Hispanic adults and one in 15 black adults is behind bars (including one in 9 black men between the ages of 20 and 34). A report from the Pew Center found that one in 355 white women between the ages of 35 and 39 and that one in 100 black women are behind bars.
Each year, at least 700,000 prisoners are released and returned to our communities. It’s staggering to realize that there are “more than five million people under community supervision — either probation or parole — on any given day in the United States. Success rates among these offenders are not high: more than 40 percent of probationers and more than half of parolees do not complete their supervision terms successfully. In fact, parole violators account for almost 35 percent of admissions to state prisons, and nearly half of local jail inmates were on probation or parole when they were arrested.”(The Pew Charitable Trusts)
Although many people view prison as a safe place to put people for protecting society, rates of recidivism indicate that protection of public safety requires more than simply putting criminals out of sight for a period of time. Perhaps we’d like to think of prison as a place where people learn their lesson and mend their ways, but the strains of overcrowding are making prisons more dangerous and less likely to encourage reform. In such conditions, it’s exceptionally difficult for prison staff to give attention to reforming the character of individual prisoners.
I realize that prison is a form of punishment and that sometimes it’s a sufficient punishment to awaken criminals to the error of their ways. Yet current trends tell us that we must look for better solutions to the problems of overcrowded prisons. While there are no easy answers to this crisis, solutions must be explored in relation to our laws, our court systems and most importantly our homes. Sadly, one of the first things to suffer in crisis intervention is focus on prevention. But, if we hope to see lasting change, we must find ways to direct more resources toward prevention.
Encouraging faithful fatherhood is one area of prevention that could make a big difference over time. This is where Church leaders should use their voices to turn “the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6). Churches are uniquely positioned to fulfill preventive roles by strengthening marriages and families. It’s not surprising that the escalation of our prison crisis follows a precise track with the disintegration of the family in our nation.
As Churches commit themselves to building strong homes — especially to promoting intentional fatherhood, communities will experience important social and economic benefits. Let us participate in ending the cycles of crime that lead to overcrowded prisons by strengthening the support structures of individual families. This can be done on many levels but the Church is uniquely positioned to be a kind of surrogate family by consistently filling many little gaps. This happens through children and youth ministries; providing preparation for marriage and instruction for parenting; through men’s and women’s ministries and in counseling ministries for troubled families. The faithful presence of leaders and mentors in the life of a Church offers preventative measures that do not have to be included in Sate or local budgets.
Millersville Bible Church
58 West Frederick Street
Millersville, PA. 17551