An Exchange on Crime and Punishment

Correspondence between William J. Bennett and Charles Colson

Copyright (c) 1994 First Things 40 (January 1994): 2-5.

I was surprised by Charles Colson's criticism of my views ("Crime and the Cure of the Soul," October 1993), and I must respond to him. Because Mr. Colson is prominent in this debate, it is important to point out where I think he is wrong, both in terms of policy and philosophy.

Mr. Colson argues this "there is no relationship between incarceration rates and crime rates" and that "we have tried that [lock-'em-up] approach and it has failed." The evidence, and many of America's leading crime experts, argue otherwise. It is true that the number of people incarcerated is at an all-time high. But the punishment rate for crime is near an all-time low. Currently nearly three out of every four convicted criminals are not incarcerated and fewer than one in ten serious crimes results in imprisonment. In other words, crime does pay for an awful lot of criminals right now.

James Q. Wilson, widely recognized as America's foremost criminologist (and someone whom Colson favorably cites, twice, in his article) was recently asked what society can do in response to repair the "standard of collective morality" in America. Professor Wilson answered, "First, get over the notion that prison doesn't work, it fails. That's wrong. Prison takes people off the streets and we don't keep them off the streets very long." Wilson argues that putting more criminals in prison will reduce the crime rate. According to John J. DiIulio of Princeton University, a leading expert on prisons and punishment, "much evidence shows that imprisonment reduces crime. . . . The data leave no doubt that the increased use of prisons averted millions of serious crimes [in the 1980s]." Eugene Methvin, who has reported on the U.S. criminal justice system for more than forty years and who served (from 1983-1986) on the President's Commission on Organized Crime, has done extensive analysis on crime and punishment findings. His conclusion? "Lock 'em up and you slow 'em down. Turn 'em loose and you pay an awful price."

Mr. Colson assumes that because I believe that a more effective criminal justice system should include more prisons, judges, and prosecutors, I ipso facto oppose other criminal justice reforms. This misrepresents my position. Although I strongly believe we need more prisons, more judges, more prosecutors, and more police, I have never argued that nothing more needs to be done. I happen to agree with some of the reforms Mr. Colson advocates. In fact, one of them-alternative sentencing in the form of boot camp-is one that I advocated as "drug czar" and in The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators.

One of the fundamental mistakes that Mr. Colson makes is his assumption that one cannot confront our culture's crumbling moral consensus while at the same time advocating criminal justice reform of the kind I favor. Here he demonstrates an "either/or" mindset. He fails to realize that one can both address the former and advocate the later. Not only are they not mutually exclusive, they are mutually reinforcing. There is an important moral component to punishment. As Stanley C. Brubaker of Colgate University has written:

We should understand punishment as a kind of mirror image of praise. If praise expresses gratitude and approbation, punishment expresses resentment and reprobation. If praise expresses what the political community admires and what unites it, punishment expresses what the community condemns and what threatens it. Punishment, like praise, publicly expresses our determination of what people deserve.
Colson makes much of the fact that the root cause of crime is a breakdown of the moral order. I agree. I also think that until the moral order is repaired and predatory criminals are reformed, we should keep them off the streets and behind bars. This is particularly important for inner city residents who are disproportionately victims of violent crime. When I was President Bush's drug czar I visited more than 100 communities, many of which were located in the worst parts of urban America. And what I heard more than anything else from those in the firing line were pleas for more cops and for more prisons because they wanted more safety. Often it is people who live in middle-class or affluent neighborhoods that are relatively free of violent crime who insist on holding a "root cause" seminar while people are dying in the streets. Professor DiIulio again: "It is reasonable to suppose that by doubling or tripling the number of officers on regular duty in and around drug-infested, crime-torn neighborhoods, and by deploying them in accordance with the precepts of community policing, the streets and sidewalks of even the most blighted inner city could be made safe enough for children to play and adults to stroll." Keep in mind, too, that we did not wait to eliminate the "root cause" of racism before going after it aggressively in law. Should the passage of the Civil Rights Act have been held up until we addressed the "root causes" of racism?

One of Colson's central aims in his writings is to undermine the belief that deterrence works. He argues that criminal behavior is not deterred by fear of punishment. This is nonsense. One of the reasons that smoking and drinking alcohol are so much more prevalent than drug use is precisely because drug use is illegal. Fear of being caught and punished is one of the reasons that, for example, more muggings and robberies occur in dark alleys than in police stations. And it explains why when there is a strong police presence in neighborhoods, crime goes down. If Mr. Colson would like to see this first hand, he should spend a few days with Reuben Greenberg, the police chief in Charleston, South Carolina. Greenberg's aggressive, no-nonsense approach-which relies on a visible and heavy police presence, particularly in public housing-has succeeded so well that the crime rate in Charleston is now at the same level that it was more than a quarter-century ago.

According to Mr. Colson, not only are conservatives' assumptions on crime and punishment flawed, so are their motivations. How is he so sure? Because, he says, "I used to write Richard Nixon's law-and-order policies. Conservative politicians who thunder 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' can always count on applause." Mr. Colson once wrote speeches whose major purpose was to win applause lines. But not all conservatives speak for that reason. Mr. Colson should not cosmologize his previous motivations; his history is not everyone's. He should consider whether, contrary to his own political experience, some people in political life say things not out of a desire for applause lines or even approval, but out of conviction. At least he might admit that possibility.

William J. Bennett Washington, D.C.

Charles Colson replies:

When First Things asked me to respond to the idea of building more prisons-one of the many proposals put forth in Bill Bennett's Index of Cultural Indicators-I looked forward to a friendly debate. Bill and I share the same philosophical framework and the same goals. We differ only in some of the strategies we endorse for reaching those goals.

When yet another Florida tourist is murdered by teenage thugs, and we learn that they all have a record of twenty and thirty previous arrests, we know there is something seriously wrong with our criminal justice system. On a very practical level, our prisons are so overcrowded that officials are cutting sentences to free up cell space.

The harsh irony is that murderers and rapists are being released early to make room for low-level offenders-people charged with fraud, forgery, shoplifting, minor drug offenses. What's the answer? Build more prisons? America already has almost as many people in prison as on active military duty.

Additional prison space can even act as a perverse incentive to pass more statutes and lock up more minor offenders. Prisons are like parking lots: as soon as they're built, more cars seem to appear.

A more economical course is to set up sentencing policies that keep dangerous offenders in prison for their full sentences-by moving non- dangerous offenders into alternative work programs on the outside. Alternative sentences such as house arrest, electronic surveillance, and community-based work programs keep minor offenders tied closely to the very things that motivate most people to straighten out: their families, jobs, and communities. It keeps their families off welfare and gives them a chance to pay restitution to their victims.

Not the least of alternative sentencing's benefits is that it frees up the prison space we so desperately need to lock up serious offenders who pose an imminent threat to society-and keep them locked up for a long time.

Every crime needs to be punished, but not every criminal needs to be punished the same way. Non-dangerous offenders don't need to be warehoused in expensive prison cells. Placing them in community-based programs opens up prison space for truly dangerous criminals-the ones who are currently being released early to prowl the streets again.

Over the years, I have met literally hundreds of politicians who agree with these ideas in private and then deliver public speeches thundering lock 'em up. Bill Bennett does not fall into this category. He calls the shots exactly as he sees them and I have the highest regard for his sincerity and integrity. If anyone thinks that my comment on that point was aimed at him, I apologize.