The FBI announced new crime rates Monday, with troubling spikes in homicides across several major U.S. cities including Chicago, Houston and Washington, D.C. While the numbers fall short of showing a national trend, sensationalized headlines and calls for tougher law enforcement are sure to follow in communities nationwide.
Many will focus on this snapshot, but it is important for Christians who care about justice not to lose sight of the long game: We must build a values-based criminal justice system that reflects each individual's God-given worth, while keeping our communities safe.
Reports of increased crime, wherever they occur, make us feel more vulnerable. News of violence seems to surround us via an unrelenting stream of newsfeeds and videos, and it frightens us all. But when crime and violence affect our communities, it is an opportunity to be guided by our values — not our fears — and create a restorative criminal justice system that honors the image of God in each person.
Crime requires a serious response, but the FBI's latest numbers do not indicate that America is, overall, more dangerous. Prison Fellowship has been ministering to those affected by crime and incarceration for more than 40 years, and national crime levels are actually near the lowest we have seen in that time. While homicide rates have risen periodically in the past, they tend to fall again within a few years. So, as we respect and mourn each loss, we should not rush to roll back important gains in criminal justice reform that have reduced homicide rates dramatically where they have been implemented.
The data shows that in jurisdictions that have embraced criminal justice reform, the number of formerly incarcerated people who commit new crimes has gone down. Reform based on values and evidence makes us all safer. A national swing back to the failed policies of the past would only mean greater recidivism, more violence, more victims and a greater waste of human lives.
The next thing we need to do is acknowledge Christians' clear responsibility in the face of crime. Restoring wholeness and security to people and communities affected by crime cannot be left solely to the professionals employed as police, prosecutors, judges or corrections officials. God's Word makes it clear we have a calling to bring healing and restoration.
Many of the Old Testament prophets speak of God's love for justice, his hatred of violence and oppression, and the responsibility of all his followers to protect the innocent. In the Gospels, the parable of the Good Samaritan — one of the most well-known of Jesus' teachings — highlights the importance of helping our neighbors, especially those who have been victims of violence.
One way faith communities can respond to crime is by reaching out to those directly harmed by it. Victims of crime often feel re-victimized by the criminal justice process, as though their feelings and experiences do not count in the system. Churches often overlook victims too, even as they rightly minister to those responsible for crime.
If you know a victim of crime, make sure you stop and listen to them. Validate their experience, without rushing to offer judgments or platitudes. If you can, offer practical assistance. The family of a murder victim may need help paying final expenses. The victim of a break-in might need help repairing broken glass and changing their locks. Churches can form relationships with local law enforcement, letting them know their congregations are ready to step in when a need arises.
Investing in the rehabilitation of people behind bars is just as important. Even as we decry violations of the law and share in God's grief and outrage at sin, God also clearly calls us to disciple those in prison. Jesus says when we visit the incarcerated, it is as if we are visiting him (Matthew 25). And practically speaking, working to make prison time more restorative just makes sense.
Ninety-five percent of the people now paying their debt to society will be released one day. Studies show that intensive, evidence-based programming inside prison — programming that places people in supportive relationships and deals with the root causes of criminal behavior — significantly reduces the participants' return to crime upon release. Lower recidivism means fewer crimes — and fewer victims.
As we care for those affected by crime and incarceration in our own communities, churches can also continue to advocate for criminal justice reforms that make the system more effective and restorative. Frightening headlines should turn God's people not inward, but outward — seeking the good of our neighbors who are wounded on life's roadside.