On March 28th, the Acton Institute hosted an important event for our local community. Hidden No More: Exposing Human Trafficking in West Michigan brought together representatives from Michigan’s state government and local community activists to shine a light on the very real and growing problem of human trafficking in West Michigan (and beyond). The event was organized by Acton’s own Elise Hilton (who as written extensively on the subject of human trafficking here on the PowerBog), and featured a panel consisting of Chief Deputy Attorney General Carol Isaacs, who worked with Attorney General Bill Schuette to produce Michigan’s recent report on the subject; State Senator Judy Emmons, the Michigan Legislature’s leading voice on Human Trafficking; human trafficking survivor and founder of Sacred Beginnings Leslie King; Andy Soper of the Manassah Project at Wedgewood Christian Services; and Becky McDonald of Women At Risk International. You can view a short highlight reel from the event below; the full presentation is available here.
Yesterday, as a nation, we spent time reflecting on the American landscape 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have A Dream” speech. In it, Dr. King decried that our nation – while abolishing slavery legally – still had a long way to go “until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”
We still have a long way to go.
According to the Polaris Project, there are hundreds of thousands of people trafficked in the United States every year. Some of them are U.S. citizens, moved state-to-state, others are brought into the country illegally and forced into either sexual or manual labor. (more…)
“Crime has been in decline,” says Acton Research Fellow Jonathan Witt, in an article for The American Spectator, “but current government policies are bound to reverse this trend.”
Against the backdrop of sluggish growth and high unemployment, one bright spot has been declining crime rates, with levels in the United States now about half what they were 20 years ago. This gradual decline holds true even in the perennially high-risk demographic of young men, suggesting it isn’t merely a knock-on effect of an aging population. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that current government policies may reverse this downward trend.
Witt’s article will also be featured in today’s Acton Commentary. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
America has a lot big problems—and we American’s like them to have one big cause. We also prefer that they have one big solution (preferably fixable by our big government). Take, for example, violent crime. Since 1992, the population increased from 255 million to 310 million but the violent crime rate fell from 757.7 per to 386.3 per 100,000 people. While in 1994 more than half of Americans considered crime to be the nation’s most important problem, only 2 percent believed that in 2012.
No one knows exactly why the crime rate dropped so precipitously, though numerous experts have their pet theories. Penologists credit increases in incarceration while police say it’s community policing. Others say it’s due to increases in abortion or reductions in lead in gasoline. All of these factors may have played a role, but one consideration that is often overlooked is the role of religion.
For instance, as H. David Schuringa points out,
Edmund Burke didn’t really say it, but it still rings true: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. In a test of this maxim, filmmaker Casey Neistat tries to steal his own bike in several locations around New York City and finds that most people do nothing about it—even when it’s done right in front of a police station.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal today, William McGurn looks at some of the root causes of the catastrophic decline of the city of Detroit. Census information released last week showed the city — once the fifth largest in America and a place which had such awe-inspiring industrial might that President Roosevelt labeled it the Arsenal of Democracy — had lost more than 25 percent of its population in the last decade. Detroit’s population fell to 713,777 in 2010, the lowest since 1910 (two years after Henry Ford’s Model T was introduced). The city, vasts stretches of which are depopulated, is now smaller than Austin, Tex., Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.
As McGurn points out, much of Detroit’s problems are of its own making. There was no tsunami or hurricane to blame. He quotes Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, on the cultural factors that have contributed to the city’s demise:
Most Americans did not need to be told that Detroit is in a bad way, and has been for some time. Americans know all about white flight, greedy unions and arrogant auto executives. The recent census numbers, however, put an exclamation mark on a cold fact: A once-great American city today repels people of talent and ambition.
“Detroit is a classic example of how a culture that was legendary for enterprise and innovation was slowly eroded by toxic politicization from the 1960s on,” says the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Michigan-based Acton Institute. “It’s been class warfare on steroids, and the inevitable result is that so many Detroiters who had the means—black and white—have fled the city.”
Another way of putting it is this: Unlike New Orleans and Japan, the ruin we see in Detroit is entirely man-made.
Read “A Requiem for Detroit” in the Wall Street Journal.
Yesterday I noted some items related to the question of punishment and restorative justice in the American criminal justice system. And in the past we’ve looked here at the PowerBlog of the issues surrounding political and social activism on prison rape.
Now today Joe Carter, web editor at First Things, considers the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the broader cultural attitudes toward prison rape:
While such laws are a useful beginning, what is needed more than any legislation is a change in attitude by the American public. While jokes about conventional rape are always considered in bad taste, humor about prison rape is common and broadly accepted.
Joe makes an important case, and it is worth serious consideration. Given his position on water boarding and torture more generally, I’m sure that Joe agrees with what I’ve written previously on this issue: “Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.” One of the things it means to treat someone with the dignity they deserve as a human being is to not subject them to conditions where the threat of rape is rampant.
With regard to the relationship between humor and prison rape, Joe is right to point to the double standard. One commenter on one of my previous posts contended, however, that “I don’t think the vast majority of people who joke or threaten about prison rape are seriously indifferent to it when it comes to making real decisions about the penal system. Instead, I think they are simply pointing out one of the ugly realities of any penal system.” You can judge for yourself the accuracy of that claim.
But I wonder too whether one aspect of why prison rape humor is so relatively prevalent in our culture is that, as Joe has noted in his always worthwhile 33 Things, comedy has something to do with “making immoral behavior seem harmless.” In this sense, then, the danger isn’t that humor about making prison rape seem moral, but rather that it makes prison rape seem inconsequential or “benign.”
In a fine post over at the History News Network (HT: Religion in America), Jennifer Graber, assistant professor of religious studies at The College of Wooster and author of the forthcoming book, The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America, reflects on what the Michael Vick saga (to date) shows us about American attitudes towards crime, punishment, and redemption.
Graber briefly traces the development of public policy and social attitudes towards punishment for violent and heinous crimes. She writes,
In the colonial era, government authorities issued tough criminal sanctions. They branded thieves; they put forgers in the stocks; they hanged murderers and even counterfeiters. The punishments came swiftly and were intended to hurt and to shame. They might deter future criminal activity. But no one expected them to prompt a criminal’s personal reformation.
But things began to change by the time of the American Revolution. At this time, she writes, “Americans encountered a host of new ideas about law, punishment, the body, and individual rights. Some citizens used these notions to call for a dramatic transformation of American criminal punishment.”
So there is a mixed legacy in contemporary attitudes toward punishment and imprisonment, particularly from a Christian perspective which emphasizes the personal transformation that is possible through God’s grace.
In round after round, the reformers claimed that a Christian nation necessarily supported criminal punishments designed first and foremost for reformation. Officials retorted that public safety demanded a realistic approach to corrections, one that used bodily punishments and shame to put unrepentant inmates in their proper place. This endless debate gave us the prisons we have today, institutions caught between simultaneous impulses to punish and redeem.
I survey four different Christian views on these matters in a 2008 law review essay, “To Abolish or to Reform? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice” (PDF). As I show in that piece, “it is more accurate to speak of a plurality of restorative
justice movements than of a unified and univocal restorative justice movement, particularly with respect to the variety of Christian approaches.” As Graber aptly notes, there are a variety of approaches to the relationship between punishment and restoration. Some hold that the two must go together, while other views hold they are antithetical to one another.
One lesson from the Michael Vick case, I believe, is that imprisonment can have a transformative effect, even if that transformation is note the sole, or even one intended, purpose of incarceration. Imprisonment is one way that society makes it clear to someone that particular behaviors are out of bounds and deserving of significant consequences. It puts the indelible stamp of “No!” on someone’s actions.
As for Vick, he’s recently made public his Christian commitment. Reflecting on his conviction and imprisonment at last week’s Super Bowl Prayer Breakfast, “I wanted a chance to redeem myself,” he said. “Pre-incarceration it was all about me. When I got to prison, I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. The one thing I could rely on was my faith in God.”
Vick’s case is only one of the most recent of many such stories of prison redemption. It’s been said before, “Prison saved my life.”
Two of the things I’ve paid some attention to, one more recently and the other as an ongoing area of interest, came together in an Instapundit update yesterday.
Glenn Reynolds linked to a video of a NYC cop who “threatens a man taking cell phone video with arrest.” This picks up the attention given here and here to the question of law enforcement and ‘citizen photojournalism.’
But what really struck me about this story was the threat attributed to the (apparent) cop, who said, “Guys in jail are going to rape you.”
This is beyond the pale in myriad ways. Reynolds points out in an update that “when you have a badge and a gun you should behave better than the average schmuck, rather than having a license to be a jerk.” Public persons, like law enforcement officials, have a higher standard of conduct than private individuals.
But this story also gets at the necessity of prison reform, and the importance of Christian engagement of the criminal justice system.
The term dehumanization gets used often to describe what happens to a victim, particularly of a violent crime. But it’s all often what happens in the realities of the American system of criminal justice.
Simply because people commit crimes, heinous, violent, or otherwise, it does not mean that they cease to be human persons.
No matter what someone has done there are simply things that are not to be done to them, and certainly not within the context of a legally-sanctioned system of justice. This moral reality is what stands behind a good deal of the principled Christian opposition to torture, for instance. And it’s also what lies behind the proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” There are just some things that you don’t do to human beings in any situation or context, merely by virtue of their status as human beings.
The prevalence of prison rape in particular is something that criminals should not be subjected to. Evangelicals have been particularly active on this issue, including groups like the NAE and Justice Fellowship.
Holding criminals accountable is part of what it means to treat them as human beings, as moral agents. But the dignity of human persons, in their victimhood as well as their victimization, also means that there are limits to forms of punishment or to acceptable contexts for incarceration. It also means that imprisonment is not the final word, even in cases of life sentences. Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.
This has important implications for what prison and imprisonment look like. For instance, in the latest issue of Corrections Today, one of the “top nine” reasons to increase correctional education programs is that “From a humanistic viewpoint, education is the right thing to do.” The brief article (PDF) cites a UN statement:
Education should be aimed at the full development of the whole person requiring prisoner access to formal and informal education, literacy programs, basic education, vocational training, creative, religious and cultural activities, physical
education and sport, social education, higher education and library facilities.
(Thanks to Dr. John Teevan, director of Grace College’s Prison Extension Program for pointing out that article).
My own view is that the broad realm of criminal justice, including various accounts of restorative justice and the relationship of Christians, both organically and institutionally, to the government system of punishment is especially ripe for fruitful engagement. And the issue of prison rape is a concrete instance of where Christian activism is of utmost importance.
On an episode of NPR’s Talk of the Nation last month, professor Jay Parini of Middlebury College discussed his role in the criminal justice sentences given to students who were involved in the vandalism of the former summer home of renowned poet Robert Frost.
Some of the younger students involved took part in a class on Robert Frost as part of an alternative sentencing plea agreement. As Prof. Parini says, “It’s a sort of unique punishment, talk about the punishment fitting the crime.”
Be sure to listen to the show to get the details of the whole story. This sounds to me like a perfect example of jurisprudence, that is, wisdom in the application of law. By connecting the offenders to the reality of Robert Frost’s life and work, the real impact of what they had done was communicated to them.
The potential for alternative sentencing agreements like this is just one of the possibilities I discuss in a newly published essay, “To Reform or to Abolish? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice,” Ave Maria Law Review 6, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 481-511. In that piece I lay out a basic scheme for understanding the different Christian approaches to restorative justice, particularly with regard to the relationship between punishment and restoration, along with some of the theological and practical implications for these various streams.
“It seems obvious that from a perspective of personalism,” I write, “relevant contextual differences should be considered in sentencing, and judges should have the ability to exercise prudential judgments on such matters.”
The case of the Frost house vandals underscores the value of this perspective, contrasted with that which emphasizes strictly controlled mandatory sentencing, especially for minors and youths. As Parini also says, “Poetry is about reparation and restoration.” The task for the prudential administration of justice is to balance and coordinate the necessity of punishment as an end in itself and as an instrument oriented toward reconciliation.
As an aside, I might also note that Prof. Parini would do his regular college students better service to teach them as he taught the offenders. Talking about his treatment of the Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken.” “When I teach the class to my students at Middlebury, it’s a you know sophisticated group, I do a fairly post-modern reading of the poem…. In a post-modern reading of that poem it’s more complicated.”
But in teaching the class of offenders Parini emphasized the recognition of metaphoric and symbolic values as a necessary part of coming to grips with the realities and responsibilities of life: “I realized these kids are at a very simple level here and Frost is confronting one of the issues that we have moral choices breaking in front of us at every moment.” This latter approach does more justice, so to speak, to the duties of the moral imagination than the sophistry of a post-modern reading, in which there is really no “wrong” road to take.
The theme of this issue of the Ave Maria Law Review is “The Constitutionality of Faith-Based Prison Units,” and there are some valuable resources for coming to grips with a practical dilemma facing the relationship between church and state in America. Another noteworthy and timely essay in this issue is Edward E. Ericson Jr.’s “The Enduring Achievement of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.”