Virtual Voices

More God, Less Crime

Crime

That title for Byron Johnson's new book sounds like a tabloid newspaper headline.

Yet Johnson, a Baylor University faculty member and the head of the Institute for Studies of Religion and the Program on Prosocial Behavior, goes much deeper than tabloid-style news. He gives a well-researched academic argument that Christian faith can have a beneficial influence in the battle against crime.

More specifically, he documents his thesis with statistics and studies showing that prison ministry groups do help inmates change their lives for the better and go back to prison less often. In between are stories about how the Ten Point Coalition in Boston cut back on crime through pastors using their spiritual and social influence with young people.

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Johnson introduced his book in Indiana recently at the Sagamore Institute think tank, and his audience included Criminal Court Judge Mark Stoner in Indianapolis. The judge appreciates Johnson's research-that an introduction to Christian faith can go a long way to give an inmate a head start after leaving prison-but he sees it in a larger context.

"What he's talking about is the crying need for mentoring," said Stoner. "Well over 50 percent of offenders I see have never known their fathers. Byron is saying that people of faith need to get in and fill this void."

Stoner would love to see churches invade his courtroom.

"I can count on both hands, fewer than 10 times, when I've had a minister and a good number of their flock coming to court and saying we want to work with this person, in a true kind of mentoring program," he said. "We almost never see it."

At one level he can understand why. Prison ministry requires a lot of practical faith in Christ that is needed to change anyone. Prisoners may take advantage of people who offer help. Others may return to crime anyway. Success is hard to measure.

"It's not that the church is not actively involved in culture; it is," Stoner continued, citing several ministries in Indianapolis: the Dayspring center for the homeless and the Shepherd Community Center for families in poverty.

"Churches also do soup kitchens," he added. "Yet you don't see the church widespread in prison ministry."

Stoner hopes the book's message makes its way into churches. "If Byron Johnson can mobilize an adult army to do a mentoring program, to teach values and work with prisoners, absolutely more power to him," he said. "We need that whether it's faith-based or not faith-based."

Anyone hostile to faith should keep an open mind: You don't have to love Jesus to appreciate the impact he has in changing lives.

Reviewing the costs of repeat crimes, Johnson concluded, "If only considering costs and benefits from a purely economic perspective, we can no longer afford not to take seriously faith-based approaches to crime reduction."

Or, back to tabloid headlines: "Give God a Chance."

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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