“Christmas, Holiday Cheer, and a New Year”

Criminology is usually about “bad news”—in contrast with theology. The biblical word “gospel” means “good news” in New Testament Greek.  Christians believe that the “good news” is that God came to earth in the form of a man, Jesus.  God’s ultimate revelation in the form of a human was to show the nature and character of God.  To the question whether he was the promised Messiah, Jesus answered “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk… the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt. 11:1-5).

My last two blog posts were about “bad behavior, crimes, and other sins” and “school shootings and school violence.”  Not exactly “good news.”  The past year has been full of bad news, from hurricanes and fires, to multiple deaths and injuries from mass shootings.


In the days after Christmas as we reflect on the reunions of family and friends enjoying the holidays together—is it possible to end the year of 2017 with a “positive spin”?  Yes, even criminology can offer some good news.


Crime trends for both violent and property crimes have been trending downward for the past several years, according to both the FBI Uniform Crime Reports and the National Crime Victim Survey.

0  The overall crime rate and the rate of violent crime are at their second-lowest levels since 1990.

0  Despite the downward trends in crimes reported by victims and the number of reported crimes to police and all law enforcement as reported to the FBI— the U.S. still has the largest prison and jail population in the free world.

32672144841_2b2c15e745_o0  Those locked up in America include more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 76 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.

Criminology-Theology Connection

Do churches, Christians, and the community of faith have anything to contribute to the over-population of jails and prisons in America?  Yes, they do and they are.  Thousands of church members are responding to Jesus’s command to visit those in prison (Matthew 25:36).  Prison Fellowship is the best-known example.

Prison Fellowship seeks to restore those affected by crime and incarceration by introducing prisoners, victims, and their families to a new hope available through Jesus Christ. They offer training in churches, in communities, and in prisons to support the restoration of those affected by incarceration.

0  They equip wardens, prison staff, and volunteers to create more rehabilitative prisons that prepare prisoners to return to their communities as good neighbors. They advocate for a criminal justice system that upholds restorative values, so communities are safer, victims are respected, and offenders are transformed. They work with churches and local service providers to support families with loved ones behind bars and people affected by crime.

0 26,000+ prisoners participate monthly in classes

0 11,300+ volunteers work in Prison Fellowship programs

0 300,000+ children of parents in prison benefit from Prison Fellowship programs

PO-InterrogThousands of church members who volunteer with Prison Fellowship share the same experience that I had when I first began working with offenders.  They are persons who have made mistakes.  They have violated the law and deserve to be punished.  They have hurt people, and must be held accountable.  But they deserve justice with human dignity.  Meeting offenders personally dissolves our stereotypes of “criminals.”  They are also persons, most of whom feel guilt for hurting victims, their families, their children.  Most want to change and become responsible citizens.

The thousands of criminal justice professionals who work for public safety and interact daily with criminal offenders take their jobs seriously.  They work with victims and with offenders, and they treat both with dignity and respect.  When the justice system functions as intended, we do not hear or read about the daily routines of police, court, and corrections personnel.  Those stories are not “newsworthy.”

Parole officer Tiffany Whittier offers an example of human dignity in her supervision of a convicted felon.  Her Christ-like approach was able to overcome the racism of the parolee. So much so, that he had the swastika tattoo removed from his chest. Tiffany is black, Michael Kent, the parolee, white.  His words describe the change. He says of Tiffany, “She is much more than my parole officer. I would think of her as family.”   The love and spirit of Christ changes people, and the spirit of Christ changes the world.

“Remembering Sandy Hook—and school shootings”

StopSchlViol This past week we remembered the 5th anniversary of the tragic school shooting incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.  On Dec. 12, 2012 Adam Lanza killed his mother and then went to the elementary school where he killed 20 students and 6 teachers and staff members.  Every anniversary of a tragic event like Sandy Hook brings back memories of the unthinkable.  Hundreds of families and friends relive the grief and sense of loss from that horrible day.

I began studying school crime and violence more than 20 years ago, before the shooting incident at Columbine H.S. in Littleton, Colorado in 1999.  The 15 fatalities at Columbine made it the worst school shooting, until Sandy Hook.  Each year an average of about 15-25 students are killed in school shootings. This number is just 1-2 percent of the total of 1,500 school-aged children and youth who are victims of homicide each year in the U.S.    School shootings draw our attention because of the multiple deaths in places where we expect our children to be safe.  Violence happens on our streets.  It is not supposed to happen in our schools.


My review of research on the causes of school shootings revealed several factors associated with and shared by the perpetrators of these tragic events.      After Columbine many federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Education, the FBI, the American Psychological Association, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, examined school shootings.  They found that it is not possible to “profile” potential school shooters or to predict who is most likely to engage in school violence.  But there are several factors that were identified by those agencies examining school shootings.

The characteristics of those who have engaged in school shootings included:

-Anger that is extreme and uncontrolled

-Bullying (both as victim and perpetrator)

-Domestic violence (exposure to, and witnessed)

-Depression and mood swings/mental health issues

-Lack of empathy

-History of discipline problems

-Low parental involvement & monitoring

-Rejection by peers, social isolation

-TV/entertainment preferences for violence

-Ease of access to weapons (Richard Lawrence, School Crime & Juvenile Justice2nd ed., 2007, p.159).

The American people are conflicted about the proliferation of guns and death by firearms—including suicides, gang violence, and accidental deaths as well as homicides.  Proponents of the Second Amendment maintain their right to bear arms but seem to overlook the entire amendment:

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Most American people favor more restrictions on gun ownership.  Hundreds are killed by shooters who were anything but “well-regulated” and used firearms designed for military, not personal use.  Automatic weapons have no reasonable uses for self-protection, sporting, or target shooting.  Our lawmakers are under political pressure to avoid restrictions on gun ownership. Writing in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik noted that the U.S. House of Representatives observed the fifth anniversary of Sandy Hook by passing the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act that would make “concealed carry” laws uniform across the nation.

GuninSchl Many lawmakers believe that more guns in the hands of “good people” will make us safer.  There is plenty of evidence to the contrary, but gun control legislation is seldom based on research evidence.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports on the number of deaths by guns but is not allowed to investigate the causes and effects of gun violence.  This makes no sense to criminologists, who spend their lifetime studying the causes and effects of crime in order to contribute to effective laws and policies to reduce crime and promote public safety.

Criminology-Theology Connection

The first response to news of another tragic shooting incident is to offer our “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and their families.  Expressing sympathy for their loss is an appropriate initial response.  Theologians throughout history agree that assuring one of “thoughts and prayers” does convey a meaningful sentiment (see Stephanie Paulsell, “Faith Matters,” Christian Century, Nov. 22, 2017, p. 35).

Expressing “thoughts and prayers” has become so common and routine that it now has its own entry in Wikipedia Many are critical for its repeated use in cases of tragic shootings because it is often the only response to gun violence.  They are empty words when expressed in place of real constructive action to take steps to remedy the problem and reduce the inevitability of more gun deaths.

Americans can do more in response to gun violence than offer “thoughts and prayers.” We have not hesitated to reduce auto accident fatalities through safer cars and highways. We apply medical and pharmaceutical science to fight illness and disease.  If we approached death by firearms as a public health problem, as criminologists and the medical profession have been recommending for decades, we could do more than offer “thoughts and prayers.”

We know the factors related to school shootings and other gun deaths.  Restorative justice aims at reducing crime and violence by attending to victims, communities, and offenders.  A long-term plan to reduce gun violence includes better mental health programs, limited availability of guns to those for self-defense and sporting use, a willingness to limit military-type weapons to those in a “well-regulated militia,” and a commitment to join together as Americans as if our lives depended on it.  They do.

Key terms: school shootings, gun control, School Crime & Juvenile Justice

“Bad Behavior, Crime, and Other Sins!”

Judge Roy Moore first came to public attention in 2003 when he defied a federal judge’s order to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from the lobby of the state judicial building.  The Washington Post reported on his removal as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for defying the federal court order. (The voters re-elected him to that position in 2012.)

Many Christians in Alabama and the U.S. applauded Judge Moore’s position and determination to stand by his Christian principles and firm belief in the Bible’s standards of right and wrong.  He was willing to risk his position in the state’s highest court by standing firm for his Christian beliefs.  Unfortunately, as a judge and a citizen what he did was unconstitutional and illegal.


So can Christians not express their beliefs?  Of course we can.  Jesus in fact demonstrated how to live under the laws of the Roman Empire while retaining one’s faith (see Matt. 22:18; Mark 12:15; Luke 20:24).

We are hearing and reading reports of a lot of bad behavior lately.  I suggest that rather than installing monuments to the Ten Commandments we would do well to simply live them.  Criminologists refer primarily to these:

“You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet… your neighbor’s wife… or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:13-17).

Given reported incidents in the past few months I am inclined to add to God’s prohibition against “coveting” to include “thy neighbor’s daughter.”  But that may be interpreted as unfairly singling out Judge Roy Moore.

A more important point is one on which criminologists focus:  based on self-report surveys of criminal involvement the majority of persons have committed some crimes in their lifetime.  Not just “bad behavior,” but crimes for which they could have been arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced.

Few of us are arrested and prosecuted, for a number of reasons: our criminal actions are infrequent, less serious, less visible to law enforcement, and race and social status are factors.

Criminology-Theology Connection

Criminologists and theologians have much in common.  They agree on the universality of sin and wrong-doing among all persons, in every age and place throughout time.

More than four decades ago Dr. Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled Whatever Became of Sin?  His answer: the word “sin” is no longer used in society.  Evil exists in the world, wrong things are being done, but few who engage in behaviors once considered “sins” take responsibility for their actions.

“What was the sin that no longer exists?  I mean any kind of wrongdoing that we used to call sin.  I have in mind behavior that violates the moral code or the individual conscience or both; behavior which pains or harms or destroys my neighbor—or me, myself.” –Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin?  p. 7.

The Ten Commandments are appropriate guidelines for a civil, safe, crime-free society.  Most state and federal laws prohibit the same behaviors.  We do not have to post the Ten Commandments in public places.  We all know (yes, even criminals) what behaviors are illegal and punishable by law.  We would all do well to live by them.

Sin and evil have always existed in the world, beginning with the fall of humankind as illustrated by the biblical story of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3).  We are reminded throughout Holy Scripture of the reality and universality of sin and evil: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).


For the past several months we are learning that many persons, mainly girls and women, have been victims of the sin of “coveting your neighbor’s wife” (or daughter).  In contrast to other instances of wrongdoing, we have not heard these actions referred to as either crimes or as sins.

This is not to suggest that we treat them as criminals and push for arrest, prosecution, and criminal punishment.  But it is a recommendation that we all critically examine our behaviors, our sins, and our own brushes with crime that are not so different from those who’ve been arrested, prosecuted, and for which they’re serving a criminal sentence.

“Punishing Criminals”

The original idea of incarcerating criminals where solitary confinement and enforced silence would make them “penitent” for their crimes was not successful.  Separation and solitude with enforced silence were living conditions more likely to produce mental illness.  The growing prison populations furthermore made separation and solitary confinement impossible.

The history of prisons in America is characterized by disagreement on their goals and objectives and the best means of achieving them.  Is prison simply for physical restraint and incapacitation?  Or for reform?  Or for rehabilitation and correction?

As recently as four decades ago most state and federal prisons featured rehabilitation programs aimed at alcohol and drug treatment, job training and vocational rehabilitation, with on-site prison industries ranging from furniture-making for state offices, to military equipment such as fiberglass and Kevlar helmets.  The programs reduced the cost of prisons while training residents for skilled jobs after release.

Many of these programs remain but are being cut back, and only a small proportion of the prison populations have access to educational and rehabilitation programs.  Many legislators are reluctant to offer such programs for convicted felons, when law-abiding tax-payers have to pay for the same programs.  Understandable—but the trade-off is prisoners released without marketable skills, increasing the chances of a return to crime.


“Rehabilitation” is no longer considered a primary purpose of prison.  Despite the title of “Correctional Facilities” most prisons show little success in correcting prisoners.  This is not because prison administrators, program staff, or correctional officers are failing to do their jobs.  The very concept of incarceration is one of working against the odds.  “Let’s put all the worst felons in the state in the same place—and they’ll get better, right?!

We, the American citizens, demand that the federal and state prison systems take care of the crime problem; and keep those convicted felons “out of sight, out of mind.”  A Columbia University Professor of Law has written an incisive and critical analysis of American prisons.

   “Our penitentiaries and houses of correction are holding pens. They do not lead … to penitence or correction. Prisons today are about more crime…. (and) does not matter whether the incarcerated person manages to make a successful adjustment to life there or not.” (p. 169).

“The US spends well over $80 billion annually on prison costs…. The burgeoning punishment regime is thus a paradoxical entity.  …the only industry in the US that thrives on poorer and poorer performance” (p. 214). –Robert A. Ferguson, Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

A logical question is whether Americans are more punitive than people of other nations.  And if we are more punitive, why?


Criminology-Theology Connection

“There is something in … American culture, that is driving us toward harsh punishment. …. It is clear…that American harshness has something to do with the strength of its religious tradition, and especially its Christian tradition.  Part of what makes us harsher than continental Europeans is the presence of some distinctively fierce American Christian beliefs.” –James Q. Whitman, Harsh Justice: Criminal Punishment and the Widening Divide between America and Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 6.

Many strongly-held beliefs and practices have been supported by Americans’ reading and interpretation of the Bible.  The practice of slavery and subordination of women, denial of voting rights and other equal opportunities come to mind.  Harsh criminal punishment has been justified based on an Old Testament concept called the “lex talionis.”

“If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth…” (Exodus 21:23-25).

A correct interpretation of this concept (which occurs only three times in the Old Testament) based on a correct translation of the original Hebrew in which it was written and its historical context does not support harsh punishment.


The “lex talionis” or “law of retaliation” refers instead to punishment that is proportionate to the seriousness of the crime committed.  Quite apart from “harsh punishment,” the principle as defined in Leviticus in fact calls for restitution or compensation rather than retribution for killing an animal (Lev. 24:18).

In the New Testament, Christ specifically rejects it.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer…” (Matt. 5:38).  Contrary to justification for retributive justice, “an eye for an eye” was a law of equality and proportion under the law, declaring all should be treated alike and revenge must be limited. We do well to remember that Christ did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it—to give it more meaning and context.  God’s justice is never focused solely on condemnation or punishment.