Juvenile Delinquency & “Westside Story”

Juvenile crime is a serious problem.  Most young people have engaged in delinquent acts but only a small number are ever caught, arrested or charged with crimes in juvenile court.

Most of us have stories about our deviant “escapades” but our stories don’t include police encounters or nights in a juvenile jailWhy?  Because we “only did it a few times,” “didn’t take anything worth much,” we “never hurt anybody” and more.  Other reasons seldom mentioned are “white privilege,” our home neighborhoods, and because police didn’t patrol our parts of town.

Most of us were lucky.  Religious folks would say we were “blessed,” or “…but for the grace of God go I !” Having two parents who were able to nurture, closely supervise, and guide us through the difficult adolescent years was an advantage.  Living in a nicer part of town with no street crime, no drug sales or gangs reduced our risk of “getting busted”.  Attending schools in crime-free neighborhoods with higher levels of public school funding were to our advantage.




The award-winning play and movie West Side Story depicted a 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 delinquency.

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 hearts” explanations of delinquency, “West Side Story” portrays some of the problems our nation faces 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.


“Juvenile Justice: The Essentials” (pages 52-53)




More Than “Thoughts and Prayers”

One week ago we commemorated the first anniversary of the school shooting incident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S. in Parkland, Florida.  Seventeen students at the school were shot and killed on Feb. 14, 2018.


(Photo courtesy of Kathy Broyard, Florida Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Network)

This April will mark twenty years ago since 15 students were killed at Columbine H.S. in Littleton, Colorado in 1999.  Before Columbine, school violence was limited to fights, knife stabbings, and a small number of firearms deaths.  My book on School Crime and Juvenile Justice (1998) had no discussion of school shootings with multiple victims until the 2nd edition came out in 2007.  In the 20 years since its publication more than 325 students between 5 and 18 years of age have been killed in schools.  (Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention, School-Associated Violent Deaths.)



I’m not the first person who’s noted the shocking prevalence of mass shootings in U.S. schools and our failure to pass laws and institute policies to reduce the tragic incidents. Yes, our “thoughts and prayers” are with the families and friends of the victims of school violence.  …but can’t we do more?

Certainly we can do more to reduce gun violence.  But doing background checks and placing restrictions on purchases and ownership of firearms in the U.S. has proven to be a challenge for our lawmakers.  Despite the public support for such measures, lawmakers are reluctant to risk political careers on this difficult issue.  Laws and policies to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of those who might turn them against their own citizens and neighbors has so far evaded us.

Some positive steps are being taken to address what most Americans agree is a national problem.  Church denominations and faith-based organizations are among those addressing the problem.  The Christian Century magazine in 2016 published a series of essays on America’s gun problem.  The publisher of the bi-monthly periodical has since made the collection of articles available for freeThe compilation of five articles addressing gun ownership, the Second Amendment, and America’s long history with guns is intended as a Conversation Guide to get us talking about the problem.

The Presbyterian Church is addressing the problem through educational resources, documentary films, and church-wide initiatives from the national office to individual churches and congregations.  Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has turned its attention from a primary focus on assisting victims of floods and hurricanes to the effects of gun violence.  Unlike weather-related disasters, gun violence can be prevented.

David Barnhart is an award-winning director and producer of several films documenting American problems (immigration, clean water, school violence and more).  His films feature in-depth interviews with people in communities that have faced disasters and human suffering.  Trigger” is a documentary film that examines the disastrous effects of gun violence in America through the eyes and voices of those who have been personally touched by it.

Can we solve the problem of gun violence by sponsoring film viewings and discussion groups around the country?  No.  But it’s a start.  Americans don’t hesitate to tackle problems involving life and death.  Why are gun deaths the exception?  The addition of statistics on “school-associated violent deaths” by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicates the importance of this problem.  News of another mass shooting is the first to hit our television screens, all the way to the Oval Office in the White House, where former President Obama expressed his frustration.

The online “PC-USA News” this week featured recognition of the first anniversary of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S. in Parkland, Florida.  Reading it brought my mind to thoughts and prayers for the families and friends of the victims of that tragedy.  But it also is a reminder that working together as responsible citizens we can do more than thoughts and prayers.  We can work together to end gun violence.


Center for Disease Control and Prevention School-associated Deaths

“Trigger” – a film by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

Movie trailer for “Trigger”

The Christian Century: “Can We Talk About Guns?

“A Man of God on Patrol”

“Life is what happens when you had other plans.” Not sure to whom that statement is attributed, but it surely applies and is most notable when life-changing events occur.  My son-in-law died just over a week ago.  Officer Jerry Whitson was the kind of man every father would wish for his daughter.  Kind, loving, attentive, open, communicative, and always thinking of and doing for others before himself.


Jerry battled cancer for more than a year until it finally got the best of him.  He died on January 20th after 57 years of a life well lived.  I grieve with my daughter, grand-children, and Jerry’s family and friends at his premature passing, but we also joined in a celebration of his life.  This man knew that he was going to the “promised land,” words made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just over 50 years ago in one of his memorable speeches.

In his 30 years of service in the San Antonio Police Department, Officer Jerry Whitson was the finest example of “a man of God on patrol.”  He saw his role as more than “just a job.”  This was a “calling”—a “call to justice.”  Jerry exemplified the standards of the first public law enforcement officials, about which I wrote in a previous blog (see British “Bobbies” and American Police).

It is so often true that we don’t know how many lives were blessed and touched by someone until after their death.  This was true for Jerry Whitson.  So many persons attended the visitation the evening before his funeral that my daughter greeted persons who had been touched by Jerry’s life for nearly 3 hours, as the line extended up the long aisle of the spacious funeral home chapel.  Jerry’s fellow patrol officers stood solemnly beside his open casket the whole time, doing a moving “changing of the guard” with an honorary salute every 15 minutes.  Their response to my thanks and commendation for taking the time to do this was simply “Jerry woulda done it for me!”

The same sentiment and tribute to this departed brother patrolman was displayed the next day following Jerry’s funeral—appropriately termed “A Celebration of Life” in loving memory of Jerry Whitson.  More than a dozen motorcycle patrolmen riding two abreast led the 2-3 mile-long motorcade for the one-hour-plus ride to Jerry’s final resting place in the Texas Hill Country.  Officer Jerry Whitson, who had been selected to provide police patrol in Washington, DC during the Inauguration of President Barak Obama was now honored with one of his own.

CycleOffcrsCmtry          I miss Jerry.  I grieve for my daughter and grand-children who lost a great husband and father too soon in life.  But we celebrate the life of this great “man of God on patrol.”

TagsJerry Whitson Obituary  https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/universal-city-tx/jerry-whitson-8133956

Blog 28- British “Bobbies” and American Police


“Religion and Crime: The Disconnect”

I launched this weblog to share my interest in examining the connections between criminology and theology.  As we have discovered, there are many connections between what we know about criminal behavior—and what we believe about God.  But what difference does it make

My primary interest is how our beliefs are translated into policies.  Are laws enforced fairly?  Are courts impartial with regard to race, ethnicity, or income?  Are sentences imposed with justice and equality for all?  Have efforts been made to restore victims of crime?  Do legislators and justice administrators make decisions based upon the best available research of “what works” and “what doesn’t work” for criminal laws and justice policies?

Crime is a major problem in America that creates fear among citizens and affects where we live, work, go to school, where we walk, drive, and more.  A large portion of our tax dollars are spent on law enforcement, the courts, jails, and prisons.  Despite what seem to be our best efforts the problem of crime persists.

What are we missing?  What are we doing wrong?  Surely the “greatest nation” can do better, can’t we?  For those who believe America is “one nation under God” and who proclaim “In God we Trust” there must be something we’re missing in our “fight against crime.”

Previous blog posts have focused on the connections between American Christian beliefs and criminal justice laws and policies.

—  A Nation Under God…. with Justice for All?

–“Punishing Criminals

Crime, Justice, & Inequality

Biblical Justice

Compassionate Justice

There is a “disconnect” between our Christian beliefs and our policies for preventing crime and administering justice.  The conflicts and inconsistencies between our beliefs and practices have resulted in justice system policies and practices that are neither just nor effective in attaining our goals.

We have focused on“tough-on-crime” policies that result in disproportionate arrests and mass incarceration of racial and ethnic minorities.  Our laws focus disproportionately on persons who possess, use, and sell illegal drugs—most of whom are not violent offenders.  We fail to address the widespread proliferation of firearms in our country, resulting in a growing number of deaths and serious injuries to citizens and law enforcement.  The cost of building and maintaining prisons is skyrocketing—despite the lack of evidence that prison sentences offer a deterrence to crime.

The news is not all bad.  There have always been effective alternatives to incarceration.  Many states and the federal government are revising the tough sentencing policies for non-violent offenders.

As responsible citizens we can make a difference in crime reduction and public safety by informing ourselves and supporting lawmakers who push for justice for all.  As Christians and persons of faith I encourage us to examine whether our beliefs are consistent with our words and our actions.

“Don’t Forget Children of Incarcerated Parents”

In my previous blog we noted that more than 1.7 million children have parents who are incarcerated—about 2.3 percent of all children and youth under 18 years of age.

Most Americans do not think about those serving prison sentences.  Even fewer think about the innocent children who miss the presence and nurturing care of their incarcerated parents.  These innocent victims of crime suffer feelings of abandonment, loneliness, and shame.  Having a mom or dad in prison is an awful secret not shared with others. These kids are overwhelmed with sadness and confusion.

I volunteer with Prison Fellowship and help facilitate a “Reentry Preparation” group that meets weekly in a state prison.  The main regret and concern of the 15 men in the group who are parents of one or more children is how they have hurt them, are not present as a dad, and the year(s) they will miss as their kids grow up.  Kids with a mom or dad in prison face numerous challenges.


When Michelle’s mom was sent to prison she had to take care of her three younger siblings, making sure there was food on the table, and keeping the house in order. “I was really mad at her,” Michelle recalls. “We felt abandoned.” She had to drop out of school to help provide for them.  Life was a struggle.  But then one Christmas things turned around. Her mom signed up Michelle and her siblings for Angel Tree.  They received gifts of clothes and toys.  Angel Tree was a connection to their mom and made a difference in their lives—like a part of her was there at home with them.

Bobby was just 7 when his dad was sent to prison.  Visiting him was impossible due to the distance of the prison hours away.  Five times Christmas came and went. No gifts from dad.  But then five years later when Bobby was 12 he received a gift from his father: a brand-new basketball. He proudly put it up on the shelf beside his trophies, only occasionally playing with it on the courts.  Whenever he looks up and sees his gift ball he thinks of his dad, knowing his dad thought about him and had the gift delivered through Angel Tree.


When Anne’s dad entered prison she started hanging out with the wrong crowd.  She was angry, felt an emptiness, and began breaking the law on a path like her father had done.  “I felt mixed up—terrified that my friends may find out about my dad in prison, but yet acting rebellious and bad,” says Anne. Her mom and family struggled that year, but when she got a gift from her dad through Angel Tree her life turned around.  And the next summer it got even better when she was invited to attend Angel Tree camp.  Anne is thankful for the difference the Angel Tree program has made in her life.


Prison Fellowship  believes that a restorative approach to prisoners, former prisoners, and all those affected by crime and incarceration can make communities safer and healthier. The ministry is founded on the conviction that all people are created in God’s image and that no life is beyond God’s reach. The program aims to offer hope, healing, and a new life purpose for those caught up in crime, and the innocent family members who are negatively affected.


Angel Tree”  is a program of Prison Fellowship Ministry that reaches out to the children of prisoners and their families. The program shares God’s love by helping to meet some of the emotional and spiritual needs of the families of prisoners.  Thousands of churches and community organizations have committed to serve more than 285,000 Angel Tree kids this year, and the program is inviting more churches and organizations to get involved in this worthy effort.  Angel Tree is one effort to remember and support the innocent children of parents who are incarcerated—and restore and strengthen relationships between parents in prison and their children.

More information is available online for those interested in becoming involved in this worthy ministry of volunteer service.


“How Prisons Punish Innocent Children”

Prison Fellowship Ministry

Angel Tree Program


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.


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.


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.


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.


    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.



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.




God, Policing, & Justice


“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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.





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.





“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.