Conservatives can provide the leadership to reduce the mass incarceration of United States citizens without forfeiting any conservative principles, so wrote Eli Lehrer, president and co-founder of R Street Institute, a libertarian think tank with tentacles to the Heartland Institute.

“Just as conservatives once led the way toward the tougher sentencing rules and other policies that increased imprisonment rates, they should lead the way in sensibly shrinking the prison population,” wrote Lehrer.

Writing in National Affairs, he said, “Reform of America’s correctional system does not require abandoning a single conservative principle or returning to disproven and, frankly, disastrous policies that blamed society as a whole for crime and resulted in too few people held accountable for their misdeeds.”

Lehrer noted that in 1979 some 314,000 people were imprisoned. By 2013, that number was around 2 million.

Consequently, “large-scale incarceration” has made neighborhoods safer. Crimes rates have dropped significantly.

“But the costs of incarceration – both financial and societal – are also becoming increasingly clear. The policies that were appropriate for a nation that had one of the highest crime rates among developed Western countries are not necessarily appropriate for a nation that now has one of the lowest,” observed Lehrer.

The left, Lehrer argued, adhered to a theory that crime resulted from negative social conditions – racial prejudice and poverty – and the best way to reduce criminal behavior was to address root causes, to fix what’s wrong in society.

Call this the blame-society theory.

Lehrer acknowledged that the theory had some truth: “Children who grow up in homes without two parents, whose parents are not closely attached to the work force, and who drop out of school are much more likely to commit crimes than are those raised in more stable environments.”

The right, which Lehrer clearly favors, held the “individually centered view … that criminals commit crimes largely because of internal moral failings.”

Lehrer wrote: “Social inequities exist, of course, but they do not cause or excuse crime.”

Call this the blame-the-individual theory.

Troubled by the high recidivism rate and the unbearable costs of mass incarceration, Lehrer advocated for reform strategy that “emphasizes individual responsibility and continues to use incarceration as an important policy tool, but that changes the frequency and length of prison stays and vastly improves the circumstances and conditions within prison walls.”

Lehrer’s piece is helpful in seeing how some want to blame society and others want to blame the individual for crime. He clearly favors the individual theory, although he notes problems with it.

When he turns to prison reform, religion is one of his central components.

“Faith isn’t magic, and good faith-based programs require rules, structure, resources, compassion, and demonstrated effectiveness, just as good secular programs do,” wrote Lehrer. “While it is possible to force the otherwise unwilling to work or perhaps even study, compelling faith is neither possible nor desirable. Nonetheless, faith offers both the most important antidote to prison brutality and a true recognition of prisoners’ humanity.”

For Lehrer, faith-based initiatives play an important role in advancing restorative justice – repairing broken relationships between offenders and victims – and in reducing recidivism.

Working on our forthcoming documentary on prisons and faith, we have learned that an estimated 95 percent of the volunteers at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility come from a faith perspective. Their efforts have contributed to a much lower recidivism rate in the PLUS program than is true across the Indiana prison system.

Other interviews and research reinforce the conclusion that it is the faith community that makes a much greater difference in restoration and reduced recidivism than the nonfaith community. Yet some holler loudly against faith-based efforts in prisons without offering an alternative.

In the U.S. Christian community, some clearly blame society – the war on drugs, racial injustice, a flawed criminal justice system. Others blame the individuals – bad decision-making, lack of self-discipline, fatherless families.

What we have found after a year of interviews is that more often than not it is conservative people of faith involved in prison ministry. But they are far less concerned about where to place the blame than what to do that makes a difference in the lives of offenders and their families.

One could say that political ideology without works is dead.

Let the arm-chair Christians debate the fault – society or the individual.

Let others show a living faith that pursues initiatives of restoration and reduced recidivism.

Robert Parham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

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