Crime has been declining in America for years. In particular, the murder rate has been declining, even in the midst of a recession. In “What’s Behind America’s Falling Crime Rate” (TIME), David von Drehle lays out the various ways sociologists explain the decline–better police work, changes to the drug trade, economic progress, legalized abortion? And finally, the explanation he credits most, a huge population of young men in prison. Drehe recognizes the benefits of locking up criminals, but he also writes, ” a court system that clobbers first-time offenders with mandatory sentences — sometimes for nonviolent crimes — will inevitably lock up thousands of not-so-bad guys alongside the hardened criminals.”
So is it good news that there are more prisoners? Has justice been served? Has our culture been served? And what does it mean to have compassion for the individuals, in particular the teenagers locked up for life, on the inside?
These questions don’t have easy answers, and they demonstrate the complex relationship between justice and mercy when it comes to public policy. On a more personal level, however, we might remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:36: “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Jesus identifies himself directly with those in prison. We will see him, and serve him, and receive from him, when we build relationships with people behind bars. When’s the last time you visited a prisoner?