How American Prisons Punish Innocent Children

The United States incarcerates about 1.5 million men and women in state and federal prisons today.  The number of men imprisoned is about 1,395,000; and the number of women is about 112,000.  They were convicted of one or more felony crimes and according to sentencing guidelines or a judge’s determination they deserve a prison sentence.  (Those numbers do not include the 740,000 persons held in city and county jails awaiting trial for a felony crime or serving sentences for a misdemeanor conviction.)

Fewer than half of those incarcerated are for violent offenses.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, many are in prison for non-violent and drug-related crimes.  A disproportionate number of racial and ethnic minorities (Blacks and Hispanics) are sentenced to prison compared to White offenders.  Advocates of sentencing reform argue that America’s sentencing policies are excessively harsh and that prison sentences have not reduced crime or increased public safety.

The point of this blog post however is not to question America’s sentencing policies but to bring our attention to the innocent persons affected by incarceration.  They are the children of incarcerated parents.

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A Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities found that about 809,000 men and women prisoners were parents of minor children under the age of 18. The nation’s prisons held about 744,000 fathers having 1.6 million children; and mothers with more than 147,000 children.  More than 1.7 million children have parents who are incarcerated, accounting for 2.3 percent of the American population under 18 years of age. (There are about 74 million U.S. residents under the age of 18.)

  • A majority of prisoners have a minor child, a quarter of which were age 4 or younger and half were age 9 or younger.
  • More than a third of minor children will reach age 18 while their parent is incarcerated.
  • Fewer than half of parents in state prison lived with their minor children either in the month before arrest or just prior to incarceration.
  • Fathers most commonly reported the child’s mother as current caregiver of their children, while mothers most commonly reported the child’s grandparents.
  • Caregivers for children with incarcerated parents include: the other parent, grandparent, other relatives, foster home or agency, friends, or others.

America’s sentencing policies that are part of a “war on crime” and a “war on drugs” beginning in the 1980s have resulted in mass incarceration that ranks the U.S. #1 in the world for the rate of incarceration of its citizens.

Beyond the arguments whether tougher sentencing has reduced crime or brought greater public safety, the use of imprisonment on more convicted offenders has greatly affected communities and innocent persons.

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In his book Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged  Neighborhoods Worse, nationally-known criminologist Todd Clear documented the impact of incarceration on families and communities.  Prison sentences negative affect family functioning and result in broken families.  Children with an incarcerated parent have less parental supervision, are at greater risk of parental abuse, and face an increased risk of having their own problems with the justice system.  A child who is exposed to a parent or sibling who went to prison has an increased rather than a decreased risk of incarceration.  Contrary to acting as a deterrent, prison may actually increase rather than decrease crime.

                  Half of parents in state prison reported that they also have had a family                                                         member who had been incarcerated.

                                 Incarceration has many unintended consequences.                                               Children of incarcerated parents are the “collateral consequences” of                                        America’s “tough on crime” policy of mass incarceration.

What can be done to reduce the adverse effects of imprisonment on children?  There are many effective alternatives to incarceration—but that is a long-term solution.  There are programs today that help children of incarcerated parents deal with their loss.

“Stay tuned” for my next blog post when we will see what is being done for children of incarcerated parents—especially during the Christmas holiday season.

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Bureau of Justice Statistics on Prison Populations

Prison Inmates with Children Under 18 years of age

 

British “Bobbies” & American Police

It is difficult to imagine a society without police, but that was the case until the early 1800s.  Sir Robert Peel first introduced policing in Great Britain in the 1820s.  The officers were outfitted in uniforms, dressy helmets, and badges so that they were easily identified. The officers were called “Bobbies,” so named for the British Home Secretary who founded the first British police force.  Police forces patterned after those in England were developed in the American colonies as cities and towns developed.

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    Police officers are the most visible criminal justice system authorities.  We have about 18,000 police agencies in the United States which include college campus police, sheriff departments, local police, and federal agencies.   There are about 900,000 sworn officers in those 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S.

Police (along with firefighters) are the only public employees who are available “24-7” every day of the year to assist citizens in emergencies and life-threatening situations.  Police are called to quell arguments, neighborhood disturbances, and respond to verbal and physical threats ranging from bar patrons to household disputes.  An average law enforcement officer’s day also includes doing public assistance tasks like helping with vehicle problems, giving directions to visitors new in town. and even responding to cats up a tree!

What About Police Use of Force?

Policing has changed greatly since its origin in Great Britain with the “Bobbies.”  Even today very few British police carry a weapon.  America is different.  The 2nd Amendment right to bear arms means that America has always had more weapons in the hands of citizens.  Police are authorized to use lethal force in carrying out their duties, resulting in numerous deaths each year in the U.S.

Because police are the most visible justice officials, they are closely scrutinized.  News stories alleging excessive use of force by police  appear frequently.  Police shooting incidents resulting in the death of unarmed citizens make national headlines.  They are tragic and deserve news coverage.  Nearly 1,000 people die each year from police use of deadly force: 963 in 2016 and 987 in 2017.

Those are tragic deaths but are only part of the whole story.  Most of those deaths were of suspects who were armed and posed a threat to the police.  The number of unarmed citizens fatally shot by police was 51 in 2016 and 68 in 2017.  The causes vary but most of the shootings were precipitated when police thought they saw a weapon and that they were being threatened. The number of armed persons who died from police use of deadly force the past two years was 912 in 2016 and 919 in 2017.  All cases of police shooting incidents are examined by law enforcement officials and by district attorneys for consideration of prosecution for unjustified use of deadly force.

The clearest explanation for the number of incidents of police use of deadly force is the number of officers who are killed in the line of duty.  There were 58,627 assaults against law enforcement officers in 2016, resulting in 16,677 injuries.

The number of police officers who died in the line of duty  totaled 135 police officers in 2016 and 129 police officers in 2017.  The deaths of citizens (unarmed and armed) and police officers are unfortunate and tragic; but it is essential to remember that police use of deadly force is a part of police work to protect all citizens in a nation where deadly weapons are all too common and prevalent.

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Police recognize they are part of the community and they depend on community cooperation to effectively do their job.  Sir Robert Peel recognized this and developed Peel’s Principles of Policing  which are part of police education and training today:

  • Police depend on public approval in order to perform their duties.
  • Police depend on the public’s cooperation, respect, and voluntary observance of the law.
  • Police preserve public favor by constantly demonstrating impartial service to the law.
  • Police use physical force to the extent necessary to restore order and only when persuasion, advice and warning are found to be insufficient.
  • Police should maintain a relationship with the public that demonstrates the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police.

Police recognize the importance of community relations and working cooperatively with citizens in carrying out their duties. They are reminded of that daily as they interact with members of the public in all places, at all times.

Most police officers view their role as a “calling” and willingly put their lives at risk as they serve the public, rendering aid and assistance to citizens in need.  Surely they are a part of “God’s justice in action.”

Central to the biblical view of justice is the idea of “covenant” — that God’s justice depends on “community relationships.”  This applies equally to policing and justice.

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https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Sir-Robert-Peel/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/nationwide-police-shot-and-killed-nearly-1000-people-in-2017/2018/01/04/4eed5f34-e4e9-11e7-ab50-621fe0588340_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.b098584daea0

God, Policing, & Justice

https://wordpress.com/post/criminologytheologyconnection.com/199

“Police Actions & People of Color”

America has a history of unfair justice based on the color of one’s skin.  Claims of unfair police practices occurred mostly in the South following the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation that finally abolished slavery.  More than a century later however, African Americans do not seem to be treated equally.  Examples of inequality and discrimination based on race continue to occur throughout the U.S.  This is true regarding education, housing, employment opportunities, and especially in the administration of justice.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  In a speech not long before his untimely death, Dr. King spoke to a large crowd about his “dream”—that one day his people—people of color—would enjoy the same rights and freedoms that are enjoyed by all Americans.  That dream is still not real for many persons of color.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) is committed to a policy of protecting the civil rights of all persons and against racial profiling in law enforcement.

Despite police departments’ commitment to “justice for all” and policies that discourage racial profiling in law enforcement, police actions in many cities and states continue to disproportionately focus on racial and ethnic minorities.  A U.S. Department of Justice study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics  concluded that police stops are still marred by racial discrimination.  Based on 2015 survey data the study found that police stops and use of force are racially discriminatory and affect the public trust of the police.

Findings of the national study of police discrimination:

  • Black residents were more likely to be stopped by police than whites or Hispanics.
  • Black and Hispanic residents were more likely to have multiple contacts with police than white residents.
  • Police were twice as likely to threaten or use force against Black and Hispanic residents than white residents.
  • Fewer than half of Black and Hispanic residents stopped by police thought the stop was legitimate, while 2/3 of white residents did.
  • White residents have more trust in police than Black and Hispanic residents: are more willing to report a crime, a non-crime emergency, or to seek help from police.

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The study concluded that the national findings have serious implications for public safety, crime prevention, and law enforcement in communities and neighborhoods populated largely by racial and ethnic minorities.  Effective crime prevention and law enforcement depends greatly on good police-community relations.  Police chiefs and city leaders have always known about the importance of positive relations between citizens and police.  It seems clear that efforts to improve police-community relations must be a priority for city leaders, police officials, and members of the community.

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Police Policy on Racial Profiling

Police Stop and Frisk

 

Granite City & Gray Walls

To the thousands of cars and long-haul trucks that make their way east and west along Interstate 94, St. Cloud, Minnesota is an unremarkable spot on the map (or GPS).  The interstate passes two miles from the southern edge of the city and five miles from downtown, so most travelers are unaware of the city except for highway signs marking the four St. Cloud exits.

With a population of 68,000 it is the tenth largest city in the state.  St. Cloud grew from the 1850s as a center for fur trade and other commerce due to its location on the Mississippi River.  It is known as the “Granite City” because of the many quarries that for over a century have provided granite for buildings, countertops, and cemetery memorials.

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Travelers driving on U.S. highway 10 on the east side of the city pass right by a large gray granite prison wall.  The Minnesota Reformatory, modeled after the original Elmira Reformatory in New York, was originally built for young male offenders (ages 16-30).  The prison was completed in 1889, built of granite from a quarry on the prison grounds, with the help of prisoners.  The prison is surrounded by a granite wall that is 22-feet high and 1.5 miles long (the second longest in the world built by prisoners, next to the Great Wall of China).

Referred to by residents as “the Reformatory,” in 1979 it was renamed the Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud.  A level four, close-security prison with an average daily population of 1,000 inmates, it is now the Intake facility for all men sentenced to prison in Minnesota.

The prison is one of the largest employers in St. Cloud.  On regular class field trips to the prison I reminded students that a job in the prison was a great employment opportunity, with salary and benefits as a state employee that rivaled most other jobs in the area.  The only catch: you had to be willing to work behind bars for 8-9 hours a day (or overnight) with a thousand convicted felons!  But I also reminded them that working as a correctional officer or caseworker was not as dangerous as police work.  Not surprisingly, very few of the students touring the prison with me during my 21 years at the university jumped at the job suggestion.

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Working as a Prison Fellowship Volunteer after retiring from my faculty position in Criminal Justice, I am now greeted by numerous former students working in the prison.  Yes, they were drawn by the salary and benefits as state employees; but they also find job satisfaction in having some small part in helping convicted offenders turn themselves around and make a better life for their children and families.

Prison and community corrections (probation and parole) workers are the “less visible” part of the justice system compared with police, attorneys, and judges. They work closely with thousands of criminal offenders.  They witness first-hand the “criminal-thinking” and illegal behaviors of the countless “two- and three-time losers.”  But they also see those offenders who are determined to change and leave behind the criminal lifestyle.

Criminology and corrections has been my life’s work for fifty years.  That explains why even in retirement I remain connected and committed to a small part of facilitating offender change and rehabilitation.  I am encouraged by the offenders who finally “make it” and by the commitment and dedication of the women and men working in corrections who help make offender change possible.

Tags:

https://mn.gov/doc/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Cloud,_Minnesota

https://libguides.mnhs.org/prison/stcloud

Does Our Past Define Us?

A central question in criminology and criminal justice is whether a person’s past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior.  Probation and parole investigations traditionally focused on that question as part of a judicial or parole board recommendation.  The general public tends to believe that persons convicted of crimes are very different from us and claim “once a crook, always a crook”!

Many convicted criminals do reoffend and violate probation and parole conditions.  When given opportunities to turn their lives around however, most offenders do not reoffend.  They are not significantly different from us.  Most of us engage in some irresponsible behavior during our youth, but our past does not always define who we are.

Events this past week in our nation’s capitol brought our attention to the question of incidents in the past and their relevance for the present.  In testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford offered gripping, emotional, and heart-felt testimony that captivated millions of Americans.

Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford both spoke of past events in their lives.  She related a victimization experience that deeply affected her through high school, college, and up to the present.  He spoke of numerous incidents of drinking beer with friends at parties but denied drinking so much that he could not remember what he had done; and vehemently denied engaging in any sexually inappropriate or assaultive behavior.

Americans and the Senate Judiciary Committee are divided on who is telling the truth, largely along political party lines.  But an underlying question is whether an incident that might have occurred 35 years ago while the two were in high school should be a determining factor in approving a Supreme Court Justice.  Perhaps the FBI Investigation (being conducted as I write these words) will shed more light on the testimony of Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford.

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“Does our past define us?”

 

 

 

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing is a “teaching-learning moment” that deserves our continued attention regardless of the outcome of the investigation and impending vote in the Senate.

The testimony of Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford illustrates that while our past does not define us, it does affect us.  Both of them moved on with their lives since the alleged incident in 1982, achieving educational goals at outstanding institutions.  Both attained prominent positions in their respective disciplines.  But their testimonies revealed stark differences in how well they “moved on.”  Dr. Ford told how the alleged assault affected her through college and even in a recent home renovation to add a second front door.

Judge Kavanaugh testified about the disastrous effects on him, his reputation and to his family— not due to the alleged incident but because of the false accusations leveled against him that supposedly occurred 35 years ago.  He acknowledged heavy drinking in his youth but emphasized his educational and judicial achievements that qualify him for his nomination.

Our past need not “define us” but our behavior in the past may well affect us and others years later.  Dr. Ford testified that shocking events are more indelibly imprinted in our memory than other events (confirmed by other psychologists).  This may explain the apparent inconsistencies in her memory for details of the alleged incident; and why Judge Kavanaugh may not remember the event (if it in fact occurred).

The testimonies we heard last week also reminds us that our past behavior may have effects on others in ways we are unaware and do not remember.  Gender differences are important to acknowledge.  The “#MeToo” movement has brought our attention to the immensity of the problem of sexual harassment.  More men are beginning to recognize the reality of “male power and privilege.”  More of us are beginning to acknowledge that it is not just a “women’s problem” but one that adversely affects our wives, our daughters, and all of us.  It affects all our lives, including the workplace, our governing institutions, and yes– our judicial system.

          “Who we are in the present includes who we were in the past.”

                –Mister Fred Rogers

Our past need not “define us”—but it does take strength and effort, support of friends and family, and personal resolve to restore ourselves and others who may have been affected by our past behavior.  Persons of faith believe that only through trust in God who cares for the welfare of all, can we find the strength and resolve to move on from hurtful events in our past.  We also believe it is important to acknowledge wrong-doing as expressed in the ecumenical version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  May Almighty God help us all to acknowledge our past as a necessary step in moving forward and not allowing it to define us today.

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www.skilledatlife.com/

https://www.jmlalonde.com/

loverevolutionblog.com/

https://journeyingbyfaith.com/

“Faith With Meaning”

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Criminology and Theology

https://criminologytheologyconnection.com/

The New Testament scripture lesson that was read and preached a week ago in many church pulpits (Mark 7:1-8ff.) had to do with the religious leaders’ questioning and criticizing Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands before eating.  Jesus responded by revealing the hypocrisy of their accusation.  They were more concerned about ceremonial hand-washing according to the Old Testament laws than they were about “clean minds and hearts.”  Jesus said what truly “defiles” people is not unwashed hands, but “unclean” minds and hearts!  In addition to the sins of theft and murder, he included the sins of “deceit, unrestrained immorality, envy, insults, and arrogance” (Mk. 7:21-CEB).

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Jesus’ message was directed to religious leaders and all Christians to examine ourselves as to the true meaning and purpose of our practices.  His denunciation of the religious leaders’ accusative question (“why don’t they wash their hands?”) seems strange to us today; but it should urge us to question some of our beliefs and practices.

 

The gospel story brought to mind the sharp criticism leveled against religious people today by comedian Bill Maher in the movie “Religulous.”  Maher criticizes religion as “ridiculous” and highlights what he views as some of the strange beliefs and practices of persons who are fundamentalist Christians, Jews, and Moslems.  Despite my discomfort with Maher’s sharp criticism of people of faith, I see a parallel with the criticism of Jesus toward the religious leaders of his day.

Do our beliefs and practices have meaning?  Are they clearly founded on major points and recurring themes in Scripture?  I’m not suggesting that we are answerable to Bill Maher; but that we examine our beliefs and practices to assure that they reflect what Jesus taught.  He taught that love is the “greatest commandment.”  Jesus exemplified that by showing love to many folks who in his day were not very “lovable”!

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Beliefs and practices that divide rather than unite people; that exclude rather than include; that ignore the oppressed and marginalized rather than overcome the cultural and social conditions that foster social problems—these are the focus of the life and teaching of Jesus.  This is “faith with meaning.”  It’s not complicated.

“Compassionate Justice”

Tags:  Criminology and Theology 

Last Sunday the message from many church pulpits was about Jesus’ statement that he was “the bread of life.” The Gospel text from John 6:51-58 undoubtedly made some heads “spin” (“flesh and blood”?!), but I focused on the promise of Jesus to people of faith that he “abides in us.”

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What does that mean?  What possible significance could a statement that “Jesus abides in us” have for persons in the 21st century?  For most Americans perhaps, not much.  But for those who are believers and people of faith, the promise in the Scripture text rings true.  For many it is a promise of comfort, assurance, and that we’re not alone in facing the “ups and downs” of life.

Does the promise of Jesus’ presence, of his “abiding in us,” offer any directions to Jesus-followers of how this divine presence might be put into action?  Yes, I believe it does.  It is the beginning of “compassionate justice”—and another example of the connections between theology and criminology.

Humankind, we believe, was made “in the image of God.”  “So God created humankind in his image… male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).  We are all therefore “children of God” (though many dispute this image, based on behaviors, beliefs, and evidence to the contrary!).  The real significance of this belief is illustrated by the teachings of Jesus, that we are to treat all persons as “children of God” who were all created in the image of God.

          “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. …. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40).

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Thousands of persons are involved in justice work.  Working with law violators, those suspected of crimes, and with witnesses and victims of crime requires persistence, perseverance, and patience.  Law enforcers from police to attorneys, judges, probation officers, jail and prison officers are held to high legal standards themselves.

Law enforcement and criminal justice professionals who are able to see all persons as “children of God” (despite their behavior!) are more prepared and capable of exercising “compassionate justice.”

          An appropriate question of all persons is:  How do your religious or spiritual beliefs, and your views of God and humankind inform and direct how you relate to other persons?

“Criminals and Us”

Tags:

Criminology and Theology

My apologies for the delay in regular postings to those who are regularly following my blog.  Preparing for and teaching a summer class on “Punishing Criminals: A Biblical View of Justice” took some extra time.  But I thank you for your patience, and for your interest in exploring the connections between crime and theology.

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I was reminded this week of the similarities we share with those convicted of felony crimes and sentenced to prison.  We began a new 10-week session with a group of participants in the “Prison Fellowship Reentry Ministry” for which I volunteer.  The first day we introduced the group of nearly 30 guys to the challenges we all face in trying to make changes in our lives.  In addition to focusing on self-assessment and taking responsibility for bad decisions that got them in prison, we integrate a faith dimension toward making changes.

Two Bible verses that point toward the need for personal change and the difficulty of making changes were written by the Apostle Paul.

“I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  –Romans 7:15

Paul was jailed for charges of violating laws of the Roman authorities; and openly admits that he struggled to live up to his calling as a messenger of God.  The men in the prison group identified with the Apostle’s words—but were also surprised that even a man of God struggled to do what was right.

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We turned to a second statement of the Apostle Paul that points to the importance of faith in turning one’s life around.

          “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” –Philippians 4:13

 

As with all religious and spiritual care services administered through the Prison Chaplain’s Office, our Prison Fellowship Reentry program is open to participants of all religious beliefs.  Many of the prison inmates were encouraged by these Biblical statements.

Even the Apostle Paul struggled with doing right?!  …like me?!

Maybe, just maybe, faith in God, in Christ—or “my Higher Power”—can help me make the changes I know I’ve gotta make!

Yes, my friends: there IS a “criminology-theology-connection”!

*[As always, I appreciate your comments, feedback, and questions relating to this post.]

Religious Programs in Prisons

Tags:

Criminology and Theology 

Religion in Prisons-Then

Religion in Prisons-Now

          Religion has been a part of American prisons since their development.  In the early 1800s the Quakers in Pennsylvania developed “penitentiaries” that included religious instruction intended to bring about spiritual conversion that would change offenders and instill in them virtue and honesty.  The influence of Enlightenment ideas in the 19th and 20th centuries along with other cultural and political developments in society moved American prisons to programs based on more secular and social scientific directions. The “penitentiaries” in turn changed to “reformatories” and “correctional institutions.” 

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          The 21st century has seen a return to more faith-based and religious programming in prisons.  Initiatives that signaled the change include Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministry; and President George Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnership.  Criminology and criminal justice researchers also focused on “restorative justice” as a more appropriate and effective alternative than the retributive justice emphases of American judicial and correctional practices.  Prison administrators (with the “encouragement” of appellate court rulings) also recognized the value of allowing Native American and other religious practices such as Buddhist meditation in prison programs (see the previous blog “Religion in Prisons-Then”). 

          Prison religious programs must comply with requirements under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Religious programs in state or federal prisons may not focus on evangelizing or proselytizing; nor may they exclude any participants based on religious preference or beliefs.  Acceptable programs are inclusive and meet the standards of religious programming consistent with prison chaplains’ guidelines that accept and welcome participants regardless of their religious or theological beliefs.  (See the previous weblog “Religion in Prisons—Now”.)

          Today we have thousands of volunteers representing multiple church denominations and religious organizations who provide religious services and programs under the guidance and coordination of prison chaplains.  Because these programs are conducted largely by trained volunteers from the community under the guidance of prison chaplains, they cost far less than most other correctional programs.  O’Connor and Pallone (see below) estimate the cost of volunteer faith-based programming at $150 to $250 compared with the $12,000 to $14,000 per person served. 

  Are these programs effective?  That is a question we will examine in a future weblog.

 Source:  Thomas P. O’Connor and Nathaniel J. Pallone (Eds.), Religion, the Community, and the Rehabilitation of Criminal Offenders (New York: Haworth Press, Inc., 2002).

“Immigrants, Refugees, and Justice”

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Criminology and Theology

Illegal immigration

Law on Refugee Status

Runaways, Immigrants, and Refugees

Decades ago I worked for a Juvenile Probation office in a large southwestern city.  We worked with juvenile age children and youth who had been arrested by police.  Their offenses ranged from runaway to violent crimes.  Youth arrested for burglary, theft, drugs, and assault charges were easier to deal with.  That is, our job was clearly defined, most kids admitted their guilt, their parents supported our actions, and the Juvenile Court decision was quick, clear, and final in most cases.  

The runaway cases were difficult and perplexing.  First, running away from home is only a “status offense” for juveniles; not even a “misdemeanor.”   We just warned them of the dangers of running away and took them back home to their parents!

Runaway youth pose a challenge for several reasons.  It is not a crime for which the Juvenile Court has jurisdiction and Probation Officers have no power to force any behavior change.  We asked, “why are they running away?”  We learned that many runaway kids are not just seeking independence and thrills.  They are seeking safety from dysfunctional and threatening family settings.  Home visits confirmed juveniles’ stories of mental, physical, and sexual abuse; parents’ drug abuse, neglect, and lack of adequate food and nutrition.  Our intervention was limited to a report and referral to Family Protective Services in the most serious cases; but that was neither an immediate or long-term solution to the problem.

I see a parallel between runaway juveniles, immigrants, and refugees.  In every generation and in every nation, persons have sought a better life and taken risks by “running away” from their homes.  Many are desperate, escaping war, conflict, and unsafe living conditions.  Others are in search of jobs in order to feed and clothe their children.  The fact that thousands of Americans hire them and depend on this source of cheap labor for jobs that few Americans want to do has encouraged the flow of illegal immigrants.

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The Law Against Illegal Entry

Entering the U.S. illegally is a crime; but is classified only as a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine ($50 to $250) or up to 6 months in jail for the first offense.  The misdemeanor classification and light punishment is evidence that the U.S. Code does not regard illegal entry as a serious crime.

The federal government responds to illegal immigration through the U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  Following their arrest, persons charged with illegal entry are entitled to have their cases heard by an Immigration Judge. Presidential administrations and Congress have taken different approaches over the years in responding to illegal immigration.  Our current administration has significantly elevated the enforcement of illegal immigration.

Are Illegal Immigrants Dangerous?

Despite the claims of some Americans, illegal entry poses no public safety risk to citizens.  Are they “dangerous”?  No, the vast majority are not, as documented by crime statistics and several research studies.

Illegal Immigrants versus Refugees

According to the International Justice Resource Center, it is not a crime to seek refuge when fleeing war-like conflict and threats to one’s personal safety.  Modern refugee law has its origins in the aftermath of World War II.   Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted in 1948, guarantees the right to seek asylum in other countries.  The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees establishes the definition of a refugee and the rights afforded to those granted refugee status.

The 1951 Convention does not define how nations are to determine whether a person meets the definition of a refugee. That is left to each nation to develop, so there are disparities among national governments.  Despite national differences the overall goal of international law on refugees and human rights is to provide protection to individuals forced to flee their homes because their countries are unwilling or unable to protect them.

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Runaways and Immigrants Seeking Refuge

The same question applies to juvenile runaways and persons seeking refuge: 

“Why would anyone leave a home where there is shelter, food, water, and familiar surroundings—for a “runaway life” with no guarantee of shelter, food, water, and the constant threat of being exploited, assaulted, and arrested?”

The only reasonable answer is that things must be pretty bad back there at home for anyone to leave it for parts unknown.

Biblical Justice and the “Alien”

Holy Scripture has plenty to say about “aliens” (from Hebrew nokri) that also means “immigrant” or “foreigner” in English.  “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21- CEB).

“Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens.  You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt…” (Leviticus 19:34-CEB).

“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice…. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18 -NRSV).