Crime, Coronavirus, and a Cure

Vinnie’s Mom sent him to the pharmacy to pick up her medication. Like a good son he walked the eight blocks to help out his Mom with this important errand. The pharmacist gave Vinnie the prescription after charging his Mom’s account and put it in a bag for him to carry home. On his way out of the store Vinnie noticed a display with the latest earplugs that would work great with his smart phone. The price however was $19.95—more money than he could afford. Vinnie noticed no clerk was at the check-out counter. She was stocking shelves two rows back, out of sight. No one, neither customers nor store employees were between him and the door. The opportunity was too good. He carefully, deftly, took an earplug package, dropped it in his bag and walked out. He heaved a sigh of relief when no security alarm went off as he exited the store.

Did Vinnie commit a crime? Yes, he did! But Vinnie is a good kid. …not a juvenile delinquent. He’s never done a crime before, never hurt anyone, helps out his Mom. But he committed a crime, even while helping his Mom with an important errand. It didn’t seem like such a bad thing. He heard stories from friends at school about how they “got stuff for free!” “Lotsa kids did it, and hardly anyone ever got caught.”


Vinnie’s right: only 2 percent are ever caught. But it’s a serious crime. According to the National Retail Security Survey, employee theft and shoplifting cost $49 billion a year.   Criminologists describe shoplifting and employee theft as a “rational” or “choice” type of crime that occurs through routine activities“.

In contrast to other crimes, shoplifting is not done out of anger or passion; no one is assaulted or threatened, and it’s not specific to social class, age, gender, or other social characteristics. It’s more easily rationalized (and therefore more common) than other crimes. “I’m not hurting anyone.” “Stores jack up their prices too high anyway.” Ironically that last statement is true in part because the cost of retail theft by a few drives up the price for all of us!

Understanding the causes directs us to the “cure.” Three factors explain rational choice crime like shoplifting: (1) the availability of suitable targets of crime; (2) the absence of guardians; and (3) the presence of motivated offenders.

The “suitable target of crime” for Vinnie was the display of earplugs conveniently located near the exit of the store. The absence of a store clerk (a “guardian”) at the counter made the crime possible. But how often had Vinnie or every one of us been in a similar situation when we could have walked out of a store without paying? The opportunities for crime are endless! Rational choice crime therefore also requires a third factor: a “motivated offender” to pull it off.  “Motivated offenders” are willing to take risks of getting caught and they justify or rationalize their actions: “no one’s getting hurt, it’s not a real crime, it’s not a big deal!”


Coronavirus and Crime

Vinnie’s Uncle Bill is an ambulance driver. He admired his uncle and would like to have a job like him some day. Helping transport injured and sick people to a hospital is a great thing to do. But Uncle Bill tested positive for the Coronavirus while doing his “everyday activity” of transporting injured and ill people to the hospital. The coronavirus does what viruses do: they infect people, especially when they are not protected, when there’s no “guardian.”

The Cure

To reduce “everyday” or “rational choice” crimes requires at least one of three preventative measures: reduce the number of “suitable targets”; increase protective measures or “guardians”; and reduce the number of “motivated offenders.”

The first two measures are fairly straightforward. Stores, banks, and similar businesses all reduce “suitable targets” and increase “guardians” (visible and invisible). To reduce the spread of coronavirus, government and health officials are insisting upon personal behaviors and habits that will reduce the spread of the virus. We know the CDC guidelines: wash our hands, avoid close contact, and more.


Reducing the number of “motivated offenders” is a greater challenge. To discourage Vinnie and others from stealing requires education, socialization, character development and more. You get it. Instilling ethical and moral principles of “right” and “wrong” even in the absence of that “guardian” is a lengthy process and one that depends on all of us as role models. Yes, we’re all in this together!

Stretching an already imperfect analogy a bit farther, changing the “motivation” of the coronavirus and its ill effects on our bodies requires well-tested vaccines or anti-bodies that can fight off the virus. Changing “motivated offenders” and developing effective medications against a virus both take time, research, and dedicated efforts of thousands of people.

It’s complicated and requires knowledge and expertise; and yet it’s also simple and begins with each of us. We know the importance of family and parental support, of childhood education and nurture. But our support for parental leaves, childcare and public health ranks well below similar democratic, industrialized nations. America’s system of taxpayer support for public schools results in what one writer called “savage inequalities” among rich and poor school districts.2  Schools with the greatest needs get the least funding.

Most Americans have never faced a pandemic like this one. But this is not our first one. The 1918 influenza pandemic claimed the lives of 50 million worldwide and 675,000 in the U.S.


Historians remind us of a quotation by George Santayana more than 100 years ago: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The coronavirus pandemic has taken many lives, altered everyday activities and instilled fear.   It is like crime, except that we cannot place the blame on those “motivated offenders”!

We’re learning from this experience. The devastation and widespread effects on the entire nation are reminding us that history does repeat itself. The greatest threats to our safety and well-being are not always crime, terrorism, and international conflict.  We would do well to remember similar threats in our history and be prepared to face them.

The words of Moses are instructive: “See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe…. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who… will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6).

The words of Job: “With God are wisdom and strength; he has counsel and understanding” (Job 12:13).

Words attributed to King Solomon (6th century BCE): “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6).

“Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body” (Proverbs 3:7).

“Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one bungler destroys much good” (Ecclesiastes 9:18).


1See e.g., Marcus Felson, Crime and Everyday Life. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1994.)

2Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991).


National Retail Security Survey

Juvenile Justice: The Essentials

“Crime and Everyday Life”

Centers for Disease Control

1918 influenza pandemic

Criminology and the Theater


America’s “solution” to crime is punishment because we believe that criminal behavior is a personal choice for which the individual offender must be held accountable. Just make the consequences of crime “painful” by punishing ’em and crime will stop. So we believe. But “getting tough on crime” has not worked.

Criminologists and other social scientists have presented research evidence over the past 100 years that there are identifiable causes for all human behavior. We all have choices and make personal decisions. But those choices are influenced by factors beyond our control. Many state laws and policies for reducing juvenile delinquency were based on findings that interventions in families and home environment made a difference.

The voices and actions of criminologists, social workers, and juvenile rehabilitation proponents were drowned out by those who insisted that crime was simply a personal choice. Most of us don’t want to accept that perhaps some of our crime and social problems can be traced to our nation’s lack of support for families, schools, and social institutions.   Can the theater open our minds to criminologists’ claims? 


The award-winning play “West Side Story” depicted a satirical view of juvenile delinquency that reflects criminologists’ findings. The 1957 Broadway play was based on a book by Arthur Laments, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The 1961 musical film was directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. The story revolves around two warring New York City gangs: the “Jets,” a white gang led by Riff; and the Puerto Rican “Sharks,” led by Bernardo.

Tony, a former leader of the Jets and Riff’s best friend, sees Maria, Bernardo’s little sister, at a dance. Their eyes meet across the room and it is love at first sight. Despite opposition from both sides they secretly meet and their love grows deeper. The Jets and the Sharks plan one last rumble, and whoever wins gains control of the streets. Maria sends Tony to stop the fight in hope that he can end the violence. His attempts fail however, and tragedy strikes as the story comes to a climactic and heartbreaking ending.

Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics put to music by Bernstein in the song “Gee, Officer Krupke” portray both the stereotypes and established causes of juvenile crime.

“Gee, Officer Krupke”

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, you gotta understand

It’s just our bringin’ up-ke, that gets us out of hand.

Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers are all drunks.

Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks….

We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get.

We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood….

Dear kindly judge, your Honor, my parents treat me rough….

They didn’t wanna have me, but somehow I was had.

Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad! ….

This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!

It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.

He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!….

This boy don’t need a doctor, just a good honest job.

Society’s played him a terrible trick, and sociologic’ly he’s sick!….

Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease! ….

Good entertainment?   Yes!    Besides portraying some of the stereotypes and “bleeding heart” explanations of delinquency, “West Side Story” portrays the problems we face due to disparities in school funding, lack of equal educational and employment opportunities, and our willingness to turn our backs on countless children and their parents, most of whom are doing their best to make it with limited resources.

Fast-forward to 1998 and 2000 when medical experts published research on the effects of  Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACEs). Children and youth who experience abuse, family conflict, disruption, alcohol and drug abuse tend to make bad choices and personal decisions that bring them to the attention of police and juvenile authorities.

        Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and Delinquency

  • Childhood Abuse: Emotional, Physical, Sexual Abuse
  • Neglect: Emotional or Physical
  • Growing up in a seriously dysfunctional household: Domestic violence, alcohol & drug abuse in the home, mentally ill family members, parental marital discord, crime in the home.

“Discipline your children while there is hope; do not set your heart on their destruction.” –Proverbs 19:18.

“The righteous walk in integrity—happy are the children who follow them.”                     –Proverbs 20:7

“Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” –Proverbs 22:6

Tags      Juvenile Justice: The Essentials         “West Side Story”       “Gee, Officer Krupke”

Whatever Became of “Sin”?

Crime is a major topic of daily news reports. We abhor crime. We fear its effects. But crime and police shows are among the most watched on television. We hate crime but are entertained by it!

Contradictory?   Yes, but no less inconsistent than our willingness to tolerate “white-collar” crimes that do not threaten our personal safety.  Americans are more tolerant of illegal actions of prominent citizens, the wealthy, and those in positions of power.

Have the lines between “what is right” and what is illegal, immoral, and unethical become blurred in American society? Many think so.


The renowned psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger wrote a book years ago that addressed the Biblical and theological perspectives of illegal and unethical behavior. Our reluctance to call wrongful behavior “sins” is as true today as it was in 1973 when his book “Whatever Became of Sin?” was published.

Menninger notes that the word “sin” was once in everyone’s mind but now is rarely heard. Is no one guilty of sin now? Wrong things are being done, but is no one answerable or responsible for these acts? Has no one committed sin anymore?

Sin is referred to repeatedly in the Bible.   Failure to follow God’s laws and commandments constitutes sin.  Jesus said the two greatest commandments are “to love God and our neighbors” (with a very broad definition of “neighbor”).    Failure to do so would be a “sin”.


According to the Webster Dictionary,

Sin is an offense against God, religion, or good morals; an offense against any law, standard, or code; or, “a sin against good taste.”

Many former sins have become crimes. What were once sins against God and neighbor are now crimes against local, state, or federal laws. Responsibility for dealing with them passed from the church to the state. One might say the policeman replaced the priest.

Under the justice process we no longer have “sinners” but “criminal suspects.” All are legally innocent until proven guilty “beyond reasonable doubt.” A fair justice process considers all legal and relevant factors in determining guilt. Despite good intentions, justice varies by economic status: “How much justice (legal counsel) can you afford?”

The American system of justice is arguably the best in the world. Court officials focus on “fairness for all” but they are not perfect. It is important to recognize that the formal judicial process deals solely with “criminal behavior.” A court finding of not “legally guilty” may not mean “factually innocent.”

The justice process only deals with crimes and violations as defined in a legal code. Most deceitful, hurtful, unethical and reprehensible behaviors are not criminal or illegal.   Should they then be overlooked and accepted?   Certainly not.

I am not suggesting a move toward shaming and judging the sinful among us!     Anyone familiar with the Bible recalls Jesus’s reminders that “no one is without sin”—a point that his disciples recorded.

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” –1 John 1:8

What then are we to do?    I concur with Dr. Menninger that responsible citizens in a democratic society have become more sensitive to injustice and cruelty.   The purpose of his book was to sensitize and arouse readers to recognize and oppose “sin”.   There is “sin” among us although it is called by various names.   I long for personal responsibility in all human actions, good and bad.   Evil-doing tends to evoke guilt feelings and unease. Honesty, self-awareness, and the desire to “do the right thing” would go a long way toward curbing what we used to call “sin”.


What is a State Department of “Corrections”?

A conversation I had recently with two retired pastors raised some questions about the vocational career in which I’ve been engaged for forty-plus years. They asked me, “What exactly does it mean to ‘correct’ a person? What is a ‘corrected person’? …and why do we call the State Department best known for operating prisons a “Department of Corrections“?

Good questions! …for which we in the Criminal Justice System should have answers and explanations. The Reverends R. Alan James and William Yueill asked the questions when planning for an upcoming meeting of “The Institute of Theological and Interdisciplinary Studies” at Macalester College in St. Paul. Rev. James founded The Institute years ago as a forum for continuing learning. Institute programs have featured physicists, judges, college presidents, researchers, physicians, writers, farmers, musicians and theologians.


So what about their questions? We Americans deserve a clear answer. $80 billion of our taxes go to support federal and state corrections in this country!

Corrections is that part of the Criminal Justice System responsible for

  • Administering the Court sentence.
  • Agencies, Institutions, & Programs using techniques & activities intended to provide security, safety, change, “correction,” & rehabilitative functions toward the goals of protecting society, reducing criminal behaviors, and changing
  • Institutional Corrections includes Jails, Detention Centers, and Prisons.
  • Community Corrections includes Probation, Parole, and community residential alternatives.
  • Measurable, observable outcomes: Ex-offenders who have “paid their debt” to society by completing their sentence and all conditions; and are productive, legally-employed, law-abiding citizens.

This last point attempts to define a “corrected offender.”

Can prisons “correct” criminal offenders? That’s their objective. Prisons punish criminals by restricting their freedom through incarceration in living conditions that most of us would find intolerable. Tough living conditions in prison are intended to be a deterrent to future crime. It works to deter some offenders, but not all.


It’s fair to ask whether “correctional institutions” are in fact “correct.” Are prisons the best way to “correct” criminals? Not exactly. Confining a thousand convicted felons in tight quarters to “correct them” makes as much sense as putting all the worst persons in the state together in ten prisons and hope they get better!

To be clear, prisons do provide security and public safety from threats and assaults from dangerous offenders as long as they are confined. The problem: only convicted murderers who receive a life sentence without parole are never released. The majority of prisoners will be released back into the community to live among us, so we want some assurance that they come out better than when they went into prison!

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

                –Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The House of the Dead, 1862.

The famous Russian author Dostoevsky spent four years in a Siberian prison camp. American prisons have also generally been described as punitive, stark institutions where any hope of positive change for prison inmates is difficult to impossible.

A fair question to ask then is whether institutions operated by a Department of “Corrections” is itself a “correct institution”!

The definition of “correct” according to Webster is “to make right; change from wrong to right; remove errors from; to make conform to a standard; to scold or punish to rectify faults.”

The definition of “to correct” accurately describes the objectives and purpose of correctional institutions. Correctional Officers, Case Managers, and Administrative Staff up to the Prison Warden are dedicated and sworn to uphold those objectives. The question remains whether their positive change influence is effective in the face of prison conditions and the “convict culture” that permeates all prisons.


The Institute of Theological and Interdisciplinary Studies

Minnesota Department of Corrections

Federal Bureau of Prisons

The Cost of Correcting Offenders

“Crime is costly—but so, too, is punishment, especially prison. The real costs are much higher than the $80 billion we spend each year on prisons and jails: they include a host of financial, physical, emotional, and social costs to inmates, their families, and communities.” —John F. Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration—and How to Achieve Real Reform. (New York: Basic Books, 2017), p. 107


America’s “get-tough-on crime” policies do not come without a price tag. The “war on drugs” that began in the1980s pulled more persons into the system. As the cost of jails, prisons, probation, and parole have skyrocketed, lawmakers came up with ways to make offenders themselves help pay for the costs through fines and fees. They promised voters they would reduce drug abuse and related crimes without making taxpayers pay for it.

So how has that worked out? For the small number of convicted offenders able to pay the fines and fees, taxpayers were relieved of some of the corrections costs. The vast majority of persons however are not able to pay the extra costs. Failure to pay fines, court costs, and probation fees is a violation of court orders and results in jail time for which taxpayers must pay. Costs to the offender mean loss of a job and society is hurt by loss of tax revenue.

An article in the Christian Century underscored for me the link between economic disparities and social injustice (“Predatory Fines: How a traffic ticket can lead to homelessness,” by Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, Dec. 4, 2019). Consider the following:

  • Fees and assessments tacked on to traffic violations of $100 now cost nearly $500, placing low-income violators in revolving debts from which they couldn’t overcome.
  • Costs for collecting fees are up with Los Angeles County spending $3.9 million to bring in $3.4 million in probation fees.
  • The $50 monthly probation fee in San Francisco meant individuals leaving the system were charged $57 million—way above their ability to pay.
  • The average of court-related fines and fees was $13,000 per individual in Oakland, requiring most to take out high-interest loans to cover costs.

Court costs and probation fees are common throughout the U.S. They are considered among the “collateral consequences” of a criminal conviction. Americans generally support lawmakers’ demands that criminals “pay for their crime.” That used to mean with time served but now it means financial obligations beyond their ability to pay. The problem is made worse by the reluctance of employers to hire ex-offenders despite their desire to work and the skills they bring to a job. We have a revolving dilemma: inability and failure to pay is a probation violation that puts them back in jail or prison, at taxpayers’ expense!

What’s wrong? Why do laws and punishments not work? Lawmakers want to deter crime while easing financial burdens on taxpayers.

Criminologists two centuries ago (late 1700s) emphasized that punishment for crime must be proportionate to the harm done. We want to deter the behavior and not create the conditions for escalating crime. Turns out, they were right. Today, the recognition that excessive fines and fees levied against offenders unable to pay them has led counties and states to assess and reform these laws.


Crime and punishment are both costly. Perhaps it’s time to consider putting more money “up front” to prevent crime before it happens. Criminologists for decades have declared that better schools, job training and equal employment opportunities for all persons are among the best crime prevention strategies.



“…(T)he idea that lower crime is the only acceptable goal simply isn’t true. There are other, competing goals that are also desirable…. We could have less crime—but we also want more schools… and lower taxes. There’s a level of crime we’re willing to accept. No politician will say this publicly, but it’s inarguably true” – John F. Pfaff, Locked In, p. 118.


“Predatory fines” by Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

John Pfaff, “Locked In”

Citizenship and the Ballot Box

Millions of Americans went to the polls this past Tuesday to cast their ballot for the candidates of their choice. Millions more will do the same a year from now. Many citizens however skipped their opportunity to vote. Others who wanted to vote were denied the right to participate in this important part of the democratic process.


Americans generally regard the United States as the foremost example of a democratic nation in the world. How then do we explain the low percentage of citizens who actually vote? The U.S. has the world’s highest level of campaign spending but among the lowest levels of voter turnout of any democracy. Are we doing all we can to encourage voter turnout? Why do we continue to hold elections on Tuesdays rather than on a weekend when more persons could get to the polls? Or why have we not seriously considered making voting day a holiday? Surely the most important part of democratic government should enable and encourage the greatest possible voter turnout!

We believe that government is “of, for, and by the people” – meaning it is the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws s/he/they is or are called upon to obey. Is voting a right? …or a privilege? The barriers and challenges faced by many citizens suggests that voting is a privilege of which many citizens are disenfranchised.

Most states restrict voting rights for persons convicted of a felony crime. Felon “disenfranchisement laws” make sense for those sentenced to prison. Taking away a citizen’s right to vote stretches logic however for persons serving time on probation or parole supervision in the community. Nevertheless more than half of the states enforce such restrictions (see National Conference of State Legislatures).

The policy of voter restrictions on offenders goes against our stated goals of offender change, correction, rehabilitation, and successful reintegration back into society.


The Presbyterian Church (PC-USA) approved a study, “Lift Every Voice: Democracy, Voting Rights and Electoral Reform” in 2008 at its 218th General Assembly. The study highlights the limitations imposed on African Americans, other persons of color, and poorer working class citizens of all races in regard to voting rights. Such limitations are unacceptable for a nation founded on freedom and democracy.

The “Lift Every Voice” study declares that what we do for the least powerful among us politically benefits us all. Opening our political system’s access to the voices and choices of all citizens benefits the nation. Encouraging voter participation among young first-time voters, the poor, and aging voters with fewer economic resources to meet growing needs is a way of engaging more positive citizen involvement.

Recommendations of the “Lift Every Voice study include:

  • Amend the U.S. Constitution to guarantee citizens the right to vote.
  • Provide universal voter registration.
  • Remove obstacles to voter participation.
  • Re-enfranchise felons who have paid their debt to society.
  • Reject expensive voter ID requirements.
  • Transition to nonpartisan legislative districting.

Members of the Presbyterian Church have been politically active since our nation’s founding that included several signers of the Declaration of Independence. The “Lift Every Voice” study concludes:

“We thus advocate a Presbyterian democratic or electoral ethic of individual discipline, multicultural awareness and communal responsibility. …. We are Christians first and Americans second, understanding God’s sovereignty above every nation, including our own.”


A Case for Going to the Polls

Felon Voting Rights

“Lift Every Voice”

The Case Against Private Prisons

     My previous blog post (“Prison Punishment as Profitable Business“)  noted the growth of private prisons in the U.S.  Private corporations such as GEO Group, Core Civic (formerly CCA—Corrections Corporation of America), Cornell, and Wackenhut promise they can provide prison space at less cost.  Influence and lobbying efforts by private prison executives have been directed at legislative changes to put more people behind bars for longer sentences.

          Private prisons in the U. S. incarcerated 128,063 people in 2016– 8.5% of the total state and federal prison population. Since 2000 private prison populations have increased 47%.  (See “Prison Punishment as a Private Business” and “The Sentencing Project” for more details.) 


Arguments for Abolishing Private Prisons.  In-depth studies of the operation of private prisons led the Presbyterian Church [PC(USA)] to recommend abolishing state and federal contracts with private prison corporations.  There are practical and ethical arguments against private corporations administering criminal sentences for state and federal courts for profit.

  • The profit motive influences all parts of prison administration and operation.
  • Hiring and training qualified employees.
  • Providing food services, education and treatment services, recreation, prisoner training, prison industries, and more.
  • Intake decisions, release, and transfer of prisoners to maintain prison population within capacity limits.
  • For State & Federal prisons, recidivism is a failure; private prisons want returned prisoners for greater profit !
  • Private prison policies contradict the principle of incarceration as a last resort for violent and repeat offenders only.
  • Private prison industry’s goals are to promote their own interests, not those of the state, society, or offenders.
  • They lobby for prison sentences for more offenders; for longer prison terms; against alternatives to incarceration; and for mandatory sentences for victimless crimes.

Private Prison Corporations Promise They Can Run Jails & Prisons at Lower Costs

  • The claim is not true; there are hidden costs involved.
  • Private prison corporations redistribute how existing funds are allocated with prison systems.
  • To pay corporate executives more than government executives they cut costs elsewhere.
  • They claim they “do it better” but cut services to prisoners; cut employee wages & benefits; cut the number of employees.
  • They spend millions of dollars lobbying legislators for laws and policies that will favor private prisons, including increasing prison sentences for more offenders & increasing sentence lengths.

Private Prison Corporations’ Profit Motive Goes Against “What is Right & Just”

  • According to the Courts, private prisons risk violations of Federal & Supreme Court guidelines for prisons.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court ordered certain minimum prison conditions under the 8th Amendment requirement against “cruel & unusual punishment”.
  • Prison industry’s goals contradict the stated aims of the church and prison reformers regarding punishment and restorative justice.
  • The Church and prison reformers hold that the goal of prison is to rehabilitate and restore offenders.
  • For the private prison industry rehabilitation is not a goal but a threat to profit and continuing success of the industry.

Examples of Private Prison Abuses

  • A court awarded the family of a 15-year-old boy $3 million for physical abuse by CCA staff in South Carolina for an entire year of physical abuse.
  • Doctors found boot marks on the face of an asylum seeker held in a CCA detention center in Elizabeth, NJ.
  • Juvenile girls were repeatedly raped by guards in a Wackenhut facility in Coke County, TX (the company agreed to settle a lawsuit without publicly accepting responsibility).
  • U.S. Justice Dept. sued the state of Louisiana & Wackenhut Corrections for subjecting juveniles to “excessive abuse and neglect“.
  • Multiple cases of sexual misconduct & violence were found by guards in Santa Fe, NM jail run by Cornell Corrections.
  • A Cornell guard was indicted on 5 counts for having sexual intercourse with a female inmate; another guard was fired after a 15-year-old girl accused him of molesting and raping her.
  • Another Cornell guard was arrested for forcing a male prisoner to give him oral sex.
  • A Cornell guard was accused of sexual misconduct by four women who were assaulted.
  • Cornell Corrections hired a jail warden despite his being fired as the head of the state prison in Roswell, NM.
  • Cornell paid workers of the Santa Fe County Jail 40% less than the state’s minimum wage.
  • The City of Santa Fe refused to pay bills that were greatly inflated and submitted by Cornell for its jail operations.
  • Cornell failed to release prisoners on time because they were dependent on the $65 per day they got. A State District Court Judge ordered timely release or transfer to another jail facility.

Examples of Medical Misconduct by Private Facilities

  • A young African-American man died of pneumonia while serving a 6-year sentence for forgery.
  • A 23-year-old woman suffered for 12 hours in a CCA facility in Silverdale, TN from a pregnancy complication before officials took her to a hospital, where she died.
  • Prisoners at Cornell’s Santa Fe Jail reported consistent problems obtaining prescribed medications and medical treatment.
  • Oklahoma Dept. of Corrections levied a fine of $168,750 against Cornell’s Correctional Facility for inadequate medical care and withholding information from the state.

            The primary purpose of jails, detention centers and prisons is to assure offenders’ court appearance, for public safety, and to carry out a court sentence.  Security and order maintenance are the primary goals, preventing assaults against officers and fellow inmates and escape attempts.  Reform, education, training, and rehabilitation are secondary.  Under U.S. Supreme Court rulings however, all jails and corrections facilities must comply with guidelines under the 8th Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.

                    State Departments of Corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons work hard to comply with court standards for prison operations.  Administrators and corrections staff are qualified, experienced, and well-trained to meet these standards.  Evidence shows that the private for-profit prisons often fail to meet those same standardsWe deserve better

Tags     Prison Punishment as Profitable Business                The Sentencing Project               Presbyterian Church [PC(USA)] Recommends Abolishing Private Prisons   

Prison Punishment as Profitable Business

     Most states and the federal government have greatly increased the number of convicted offenders sentenced to prison.  Legislators added more offenses to those requiring prison time and increased the length of prison sentences.  “Getting tough on crime” through more incarceration results in overcrowded prisons.  Despite a boom in new prison construction in the last 35 years, many states and the federal government have turned to the private sector for more prison beds.  Private, for-profit prisons are a booming industry.

          Information from “The Sentencing Project”  shows that private prisons in the United States incarcerated 128,063 people in 2016, representing 8.5% of the total state and federal prison population. The number of people housed in private prisons has increased 47% since 2000.


          States vary in the use of private correctional facilities. New Mexico incarcerates over 40% of its prison population in private facilities, and Texas incarcerated the largest number (13,692) of people in private facilities. Nearly half of the states (23) do not employ any for-profit prisons. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that 27 states and the federal government incarcerated people in private facilities run by corporations including GEO Group and Core Civic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America).

          The 47% increase in private prison commitments compares with just a 9% increase in the overall prison population increase in the U.S.  In six states, the private prison population has more than doubled. The federal prison system showed a 120% increase in use of private prisons since 2000, reaching 34,159 people in private facilities in 2016.  Border patrols have incarcerated 26,249 immigrants –73% of those detained—in privately-run facilities in 2017.  The private immigrant population grew 442% since 2002.  (See the ).

       Criminologists, correctional experts, and administrators of many state departments of corrections are critical of private prison corporations and refuse to contract for their services.  Major arguments against private prisons are that they are not less expensive than state institutions; lower qualifications and salaries for line staff; and any cost reduction is by reducing corrections staff which jeopardizes adequate supervision and safety.  

Churches Call for Abolishing Private Prisons

          The Presbyterian Church [PC(USA)] has studied the operation and overall costs of private prisons in America. Based on the findings the General Assembly meetings of the denomination (in 2003 and in 2012) passed resolutions to abolish state and federal contracts with private prison corporations

          The denomination’s recommendations against private prisons include:

  • Ban interstate commerce in private prisoners.
  • Ban construction of speculation prisons.
  • Ban use of private prisons to house juveniles.
  • Prevent renewal of current state, county, and city contracts with for-profit private prison corporations.

          The church’s arguments against private prisons are that:

  • Having the private sector own and operate jails and prisons is an unfair monopoly and therefore undemocratic.
  • In a democratic society, there are certain functions that should never be operated for profit.
  • Contracting with the private sector for jails and prisons is no more appropriate than for operating police departments or the court system.

          The church’s recommendation for abolishing the use of private jails and prisons argues that some things that should never be bought and sold in the marketplace include the powers to:

  • Take away another person’s freedom.
  • Separate them from other human beings.
  • Prevent them from communicating in any way with others.
  • The use of physical force against them, up to and including deadly force.
  • These are the powers invested in those who operate jails and prisons, whether public or private.

      Prison administrators and wardens of nearly half of the states appear to agree with the church’s arguments, refusing to contract with private prison corporations for incarcerating convicted offenders. 

       Besides ethical arguments, what other reasons might be turning many states from accepting the lobbying efforts and offers of private prison corporations?    We will explore some of the untold stories of private prisons, hidden costs, and documented abuses of power in our next weblog.     Stay tuned!

Tags                 The Sentencing Project 

Beating Gun Violence

A new book addresses a major epidemic in our country that touches the lives of nearly every American.  The authors, Shane Claiborne & Michael Martin, are gun owners, avid hunters, and sport shooters. They address the problem of gun violence from a balanced perspective, without pitting one group against another.  They include facts, statistics, and the history of gun manufacturing, sales, and ownership to support their conclusion that America can and must do more to reduce gun violence. 

   A unique contribution of the book is how the authors document a growing movement to put into practice the words of two prophets from the Hebrew (Old Testament) Bible.  I was drawn to this book for the biblical and religious perspective on addressing gun violence.          “They shall beat their swords into plowshares…”         (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3).


      In the book (published by Brazos Press in 2019) Claiborne and Martin document the activities of an organization called RAWtools (“RAW” is “war” reversed).  The authors had a friend who owned several guns, including an AK-47. Following the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary he began questioning why we have assault rifles on our streets.  They met with a blacksmith and learned how to create garden tools from that AK-47, and RAWtools was born.  Thus began a campaign to collect assault weapons and other unwanted firearms and turn them into shovels, rakes, and other garden tools.  “Beating” guns is about reducing gun violence; and about literally “beating guns” heated to more than 2,000 degrees on a blacksmith’s anvil, reforming them into tools as described by the prophets Isaiah and Micah.

          The authors do not claim to represent the views of members of the National Rifle Association (NRA); but they note that the NRA represents fewer than 5 percent of gun owners.  As gun owners themselves they take a position like that of the NRA in the 1960s which supported the Gun Control Act of 1968 and focused on sportsmen, hunters and target shooters and had little to do with political opposition to gun control.

          Claiborne and Martin see changes as evidenced by a recent survey in which 74 percent of NRA members supported universal background checks on all gun sales (compared to 84 percent of all gun owners and 90 percent of all Americans—p. 78).* In addition to the biblical and religious perspective on “beating guns,” other highlights of the book are the history of gun manufacturing and ownership which authors highlight with statistical data.  *(Page numbers correspond with the Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader version of the book.) 

Oversupply and Overdemand
<>We manufactured an average of 9,458,172 guns annually in the US from 2012 to 2015.
<>That’s 25,912 per day.   <>That’s 1,079 per hour.  <>That’s 17.9 per minute.
<>That’s 1 gun every three seconds (p. 43)

Enough guns? Or too many guns?  <>We have about 300 million guns in the U. S.            <>That’s about one per person.  <>Each year millions of new guns are added to the arsenal.  <> In 2016, a record 27 million guns were sold (p. 43).  

We have a problem: we’re addicted to guns.  <> 32% of US households have guns.
<> 3% of the US population owns half of the 300 million guns.  <> That’s an average of 17 guns each.  <>  Nearly 2/3 of our guns are owned by 20% of gun owners.
<>  61% of gun owners are white men (white men make up just 32% of the population).
<>  Where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths (p. 43).

More Gun Facts  <> The US has 5% of the world’s population, but 42% of the world’s privately held guns.  <>  There are 170,000 guns for sale online.  <>  There are nearly five times more licensed gun dealers in the US than there are McDonald’s restaurants.
<>  Guns kill 38,000 people per year & over half are suicides.  <>  Over 100 people die from guns every day in America.  <>  There are 73,000 gun-related injuries each year in America.  <>  There are over 400,000 crimes involving guns per year.  <>  The US has 29 gun homicides per million people (#1 in world).  <>  Of all children killed by guns in the world’s developed nations, 87% are US children (p. 44).

Records on Gun Sales  <>  The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) keeps records of all gun sales through licensed dealers but must destroy them after 90 days (a 2001 law).  <>  The ATF can check gun dealers for illegal sales, but only once a year.  Just 5% of gun shops are responsible for 90% of guns used in crimes, but ATF can’t release that information publicly.  <>  The ATF isn’t allowed to have computers or develop a national database, so by a law pushed by the NRA they have thousands of boxes of paper records (p. 91).  

Registration? <> In the US, we register births, marriages, divorces, deaths, houses, land, trucks, boats, and animals—everything but guns (p. 92).  

Dangerous, with weapons?  <> Folks on the no-fly list can still buy weapons. <>  From 2004 to 2010, persons on that list had background checks 1,228 times; and 1,119 (91%) were approved—only 109 denied.  <> You can’t fly on an airplane if considered “dangerous” but you can still buy weapons (p. 94).  

Rights vs. Responsibilities     “We are better at protecting the Second Amendment than the Ten Commandments, one of which is “You shall not murder” (Deuteronomy 5:17); and Jesus’s declarations in the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5), one of which is “Blessed are the peacemakers” (p. 139).

Gun Violence and Gospel Values

The Church has always existed in an imperfect world with imperfect members.  When the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ fulfills its calling to be the voice, hands, heart, and feet of Jesus it continues his ministry and teachings.  Despite our imperfections we strive to fulfill our calling through worship, prayer, Christian education, and compassion to our neighbors in need of comfort, help, and support. 

     Churches of all denominations have had a major role in America as they have pulled communities together, supporting parents and families in child development, instilling values and developing vital institutions such as schools, colleges, and hospitals. 

          Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly(John 10:10). 

          Christian churches are called to promote abundant life, a task that seems overwhelming and impossible in an imperfect world.  In the face of tragic gun violence incidents that have become all too frequent and common, what are we to do?  After we offer our “thoughts and prayers” for the families of victims of gun violence, what are we to do?  Church denominations have spoken out on gun violence.


    The Presbyterian Church [PC(USA)] has for fifty years endorsed recommendations for reducing gun violence.  Ministers and lay commissioners representing the national denomination have passed fourteen different recommendations at their biennial General Assembly meetings.  Recommendations from the 219th General Assembly (2010) entitled “Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call” offer examples of what churches can do.


–Build public awareness of gun violence and the epidemic of preventable gun-related deaths, totaling more than 620,000 over the past twenty years.

–Address the temptation to gun suicide and murder-suicide among all people.

–Churches should work at urban-suburban ecumenical partnerships to better understand the problem of gun violence and take effective action.

–Lead in ecumenical gatherings for public prayer at gun violence sites.

–Support appropriate law enforcement gang intervention strategies based on the public health model.

–Work with local law enforcement agencies and community groups to identify gun shops that engage in retail practices designed to circumvent laws on gun sales and encourage full legal compliance.

–Work with colleges and universities to sponsor educational events on gun violence and its prevention.

–Encourage citizens, hunters, and law enforcement officials who regularly handle weapons properly to be wise examples in reducing risks and teaching how to prevent the misuse of deadly force.

–Support recommendations of the International Association of Chiefs of Police to support laws to require judges and law enforcement to remove guns from situations of domestic violence, mental illness, drug use, or previous criminal record.

–Encourage and support lawmakers to draft and pass legislation that will get wide public support on measures such as:

  • Limit legal personal gun acquisition to one handgun a month;
  •  Require licensing, registration and waiting periods for all guns sold;
  • Close the ‘gun show loophole” by requiring background checks for all gun sales;
  •  Ban semiautomatic assault weapons, armor piercing handgun ammunition, and .50 caliber sniper rifles;
  •  Advocate for new technologies to aid law enforcement agencies to trace crime guns and promote public safety;
  •  Raise the age for handgun ownership to 21 years; and
  •  Eliminate the Tiahrt Amendment relating to the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) that limits local law enforcement and the U.S. Dept. of Justice to trace and record gun purchases and owners.

          “Gun Violence, Gospel Values” challenges our fatalism and numbness in accepting the highest gun death rates in the world and proposes a new “spiritual awakening” approach: a church-related, community-based strategy to reduce gun violence. The Presbyterian Church has also produced a documentary film entitled “Trigger” that examines the effects and factors related to gun violence.  The film has brought community groups together to discuss the problem and is available for public viewing.

   America’s strength is taking action to solve problems.  It’s time to stop our acceptance of gun violence.  We’re better than this.  The Presbyterian Church recommendations are an example of what we can do when working together.  Approaching gun violence from public health and community policing perspectives we can together reduce the spread of illegal weapons and their tragic misuse.

Tags  Remembering Sandy Hook     The Church & Gun Violence 

“Trigger”  Gun Violence, Gospel Values