I recently told you that events in Jena, Louisiana, raised important questions about the role of race in our criminal justice system.
But there's more to this issue than just race—there is a cultural dimension to the problem as well.
That cultural dimension was recently articulated by the distinguished sociologist and historian Orlando Patterson of Harvard. In a Sunday New York Times op-ed, Patterson cites the numbers—African-Americans make up 13 percent of the general population, but 50 percent of those in prison. He asks: "How, after decades of undeniable racial progress, did we end up with this virtual gulag of racial incarceration?"
Part of the answer undeniably lies in the way that our laws, especially our drug laws, are enforced. As Patterson writes, our criminal justice system "unfairly focuses on drug offenses and other crimes more likely to be committed by blacks . . ."
Combine this with "draconian mandatory sentencing" laws, and there is little wonder that so many young black men are behind bars. Still, the sad truth is that even if racism were eradicated from our criminal justice system, young black men would still form a disproportionate percentage of prisoners.
Why? Patterson points the finger at what he calls a "crisis in relations between men and women of all classes." The result of this is the "catastrophic state of black family life, especially among the poor."
This "catastrophic state" is best illustrated by the fact that "some 70 percent of black babies are born to single mothers." Patterson writes that this "absence of fathers" is "undoubtedly a major cause of youth delinquency."
As a result of this absence of fathers, "far too many African-Americans" face a "lack of paternal support and discipline." Single mothers are forced to work "regardless of the effect on their children's care."
This leaves their children vulnerable to gangs, which often function as "parental substitutes" and what Patterson calls the "ghetto-fabulous culture of the streets."
These conditions then combine with the criminal justice system to make "hardened criminals of nonviolent drug offenders." The result is a self-perpetuating "vicious cycle" that produces young men who are "unemployable, unreformable, and unmarriageable."
These are hard words from Patterson, not only for African-Americans like Patterson, but for all of us. The "catastrophic state" Patterson writes about is the result of cultural trends and ideas about the family that originated outside inner-city neighborhoods. As political scientist James Q. Wilson has pointed out, the poor and marginalized were simply more vulnerable to these forces.
Whatever the causes, Christians cannot stand by and do nothing while this "vicious cycle" perpetuates itself.
A great deal has gone wrong to bring us where we are today. It is time for God's people to dedicate themselves to setting things aright.
From BreakPoint®, October 15, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship