The Common Good
February 2010

More Religion, Less Juvenile Crime

by John J. DiIulio Jr. | February 2010

The case for faith, not prison, to prevent youth crime.

From 1985 to 1994, the rates at which 14- to 17-year-old males committed murder doubled for whites and tripled for blacks. Juveniles carried out about 137,000 more violent crimes in 1994 than they had in 1985. A 1996 report issued by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), “Combating Violence and Delinquency,” warned that “juvenile arrest rates for violent crimes will more than double by the year 2010.”

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I was not among the dozens of experts cited in that OJJDP report, but I certainly was among those who feared that the experts were right. In fact, I was so concerned that I “got religion.”
As I argued then, jacking up prison terms would not deter impulsive juveniles with no hope for life past their 30th birthdays. Nor would it be wise to treat kid-criminals as adults. A much-quoted quip of mine was that incarcerating juveniles under Spartan conditions with adults would only produce remorseless “street gladiators” and “super-predators.”
These phrases were miscast by many to mean “lock ’em up and throw away the key,” but they meant precisely the opposite. Abused, neglected, jobless, and fatherless juvenile toughs viewed prison as a mere rite of passage. Long-term incarceration, especially in prisons with adult felons, would deter few from hair-trigger violence and other crimes. Born into both economic poverty and “moral poverty”—the poverty of being without any or many loving, caring adults actively and persistently present in their troubled young lives—these young people, I argued, could only be set straight and saved with help from religious communities. A favorite mantra, which I used in congressional testimony and elsewhere, embodied my preferred solution to the predicted menace: “Build churches, not jails.”
Thank God that, rather than reach bloody new highs, juvenile violence receded. As we approach 2010, juvenile crime rates are at or below their pre-1985 levels—but why? A 2008 report by a National Academy of Sciences panel, which I briefly advised, suggests that while increased incarceration played a major role in the crime drop among adults, the impact of tougher sentencing on juvenile crime has been ambiguous or nonexistent. And studies of juvenile criminals serving time with adults suggest (surprise, surprise) that those youths become more likely to commit worse crimes in the future.
As I summarize in the latest issue of the Annual Review of Law and Social Science, there is a critical mass of evidence that diverse faith factors—believing in God, church-going, participation in a religious substance-abuse program, ministries that mentor adjudicated youth, and more—significantly reduce felonies and other illicit high-risk behaviors by (and against) juveniles. More research is needed about each of these factors, how and if they reinforce one another, and their relation to different types of religious organizations and different types of crime.
There are today good empirical reasons to flank good moral ones for opposing punitive, draconian juvenile justice policies; rolling back or reversing policies that permit juveniles to be incarcerated with adults; believing that diverse religious individuals, institutions, and communities deserve more credit for the post-1994 crime drop than they have yet received; and supporting a significant expansion in public funding for faith-based anti-crime programs that serve everyone from at-risk toddlers to high-risk teenagers, from needy preschoolers to struggling ex-prisoners.
Pray that we come together and make 2010 the year for real juvenile justice reform at all levels of government.

John J. DiIulio Jr., the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and is author of Godly Republic.

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