The Illusion of Meritocracy in Policing, Part 3 | A Long Repentance Post #12 | The Anástasis Center for Christian Education & Ministry: Sangwon Yang & Mako Nagasawa


Pictured: An article from Breitbart News, a white nationalist news source, specializing in generating content that reinforces racist and xenophobic tropes.  This is the type of material we seek to challenge on the levels of fact, values, and faith.

The Purpose of A Long Repentance Blog Series

People talk about issues of race and justice in the United States as issues of ‘justice and injustice.’  Sometimes we launch into debates about ‘the proper role of government.’  But is that the original framework from which these issues were asked and debated?

The purpose of the blog post series called A Long Repentance: Exploring Christian Mistakes About Race, Politics, and Justice in the United States is to remind our readers that these issues began as Christian heresies.  They were at variance from Christian beliefs prior to colonialism.  Since Christians enacted and institutionalized what we believe to be heretical ideas, they were very destructive and harmful, then as now.  And we bear a unique responsibility for them.  As a result, we believe we must engage in a long repentance.  We must continue to resist the very heresies that we put into motion.  Thus the title of this blog series, A Long Repentance.  The journey is long and challenging.  It may be impossible to see the end.  But along the way, it is also inspiring and sometimes breathtaking.

We also encourage you to explore this booklet, A Long Repentance: A Study Guide, for further reflections and discussion questions.

In Post #2 and Post #5, we explored how white American Protestants promoted the heretical view of Genesis 1 taught by John Locke, that the productive can take land/property from the unproductive.   Setting themselves up for deep anxiety, they also maintained that the social system they set up was fair and ‘meritocratic’ – as opposed to blatantly racist.  They tended to believe that their ‘individual success’ was the result of their ‘personal hard work.’  White Americans even hid from themselves the fact that they used massive government intervention to set up a deeply unequal and racialized social system that continues to this day.  In Post #6 and Post #7, we explored the racialized housing system.  In Post #8 and Post #9, we explored the school system.  In Post #10 and Post #11, we started explored policing.


Violent Crime

Michaela raised an objection.  “If you only cite things like drug possession, you’d be suggesting that the prison population grew because of non-violent crime.  But look at this:



“True,” said Brian.  “The actual majority of prison growth was because of violent offenders.”

“You mentioned the war on drugs,” Michaela continued.  “It’s true that Nixon started using that phrase in 1970.  But black offenders committed 52% of the homicides between 1980 to 2008,[1] despite being only 13% of the American population.  According to FBI data, from

“2011 to 2013 – 38.5 percent of people arrested for murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault were black.”[2]

So if police are arresting more black people, is that necessarily evidence that police are racist?  It’s not politically correct to say things like this, but criminologist Barry Latzer, in his book The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America,[3] argues that (in his words) “black culture” is the major contributor to the violence in urban black communities.”

“Michaela,” said Brian.  “It’s a good thing I’ve read that book, because using the phrase “black culture” to describe what Latzer is trying to describe is not something I’d recommend anyone do.”[4]

“Sure,” said Michaela.  “And I put it in scare quotes, too.  What do you think of Latzer’s theory that the Scots-Irish who dominated the culture of the American South were more violent than many other English immigrants?[5]  And that through their violence, they influenced black Americans to be more violent, too?  Especially after the Great Migration to Northern cities, where they faced racism in housing, schools, policing, etc.?[6]

“I can appreciate what Latzer is trying to do,” said Brian.  “But I’m not sure how much we can say that those black Americans who fled the South were more violent.”

“Really?” asked Michaela.  “What about the Harlem riot of 1935; the Rochester riot of 1964; Harlem in 1964; Philadelphia in 1964; Watts in 1965 –”

“I’m sorry, I have to interrupt you,” said Brian.  “Yes, there were riots started by or involving black people, and yes, riots increased for a while after Watts 1965.  But those incidents started in response to unfair, racist treatment and/or police brutality.

“Between 1940 and 1965, Los Angeles County’s black population had grown from 75,000 to 650,000. Most black people in the county lived in Southeast L.A., a section of the city that was home to failing schools and little or no access to public transportation… At the time of the Fryes’ arrests, feelings remained raw in the black community over the repeal of the Rumford Fair Housing Act. The act, meant to protect blacks against housing discrimination, was nullified by California voters the year before when they passed Proposition 14 with 65% of the vote. (The proposition was later found unconstitutional by both the California and U.S. Supreme Courts.) At the scene in Watts, witnesses to the arrest of the Fryes said they had heard officers using racial slurs as they clashed with residents. Many said the arrests highlighted the type of police misconduct they considered rampant in the area.”[7]

You’re also leaving out the riots started by white people against blacks just because blacks pushed back on segregation:  East St. Louis in 1917; Chicago in 1919; Tulsa in 1921 because of white jealousy of “black Wall Street”; Anacostia in Washington DC in 1949; Boston in 1974 by white parents against black kids being schoolbused into white schools…”

“You’re right,” said Michaela.  “It wasn’t one-sided.  But that was the context when Nixon declared a war on crime.”

“Actually,” Brian added, “LBJ, a white liberal, started the prison expansion.  Naomi Murakawa, in her book The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America[8] talks about that.  And LBJ moved with the fears many white people had that the Civil Rights Movement would lead to more black urban violence.[9]  So by the time Richard Nixon became President, yes, violent crime was rising:


Data from U.S. Department of Justice, FBI: Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics[10]

“So that’s interesting,” said Michaela.  “The FBI data says murder and manslaughter stayed flat between 1960 to 1965.  But by 1968, that rate had gone up by 50%, which might have alarmed people.  But property crime had really taken off:  A 250% increase in robberies and vehicle theft, and a 200% increase in burglaries.  Are you saying Nixon’s “law and order” platform was really a “property rights” platform?”

“Well, not just that,” Brian replied.  “Assault and rape were increasing, too, so we can’t say that people were making things up.  But it’s not just the urban riots.  It was the choice of our political leaders:

“The U.S. homicide rate in 1965 was significantly lower than it had been in several previous moments in American history: 5.5 per 100,000 U.S. residents as compared, for example, with 9.7 per 100,000 in 1933.”[11]

Theories of Crime and Racial Implications

“What’s more,” said Brian, “it’s possible that LBJ, Nixon, and others scapegoated the black community itself for violent crime.  There is even a possibility violent crime went up in part because leaded gasoline in cars poisoned the air and people, until we switched to unleaded gasoline in the 1970’s, and crime went down in the 90’s when those people aged out.”[12]

“Don’t you think we should give police more credit?” rebutted Michaela.  “Rudy Giuliani’s “broken windows policing” brought down crime in New York City by 75% from the early 1990’s to 2010.” [*broken windows policing: the view that police should pursue minor crimes and reduce public disorder, to reduce overall crime rates; part of what President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions advocated.]

“Michaela,” said Brian, “violent crime was already down by 12% in New York City from 1990 to 1994, before Giuliani took office.  How certain can we be about why crime fell in the 1990’s?  That’s important because some theories have more racial implications than others.”

“Do you think you’re predisposed to believe the liberal theory of lead poisoning in the air because you want to avoid the racial implications for blacks?” asked Michaela.

“Do you think you’re predisposed to believe the conservative theory of policing and incarceration because you want to avoid environmental regulations and the racial implications for whites?” asked Brian.

“We can’t test your theory in a lab experiment,” said Michaela, “because it’s unethical to poison children with lead and see how they grow up.  That’s awfully convenient for you.”

“We can’t test your theory in a lab experiment, either,” said Brian, “because we can’t rerun the people of New York City.  Isn’t that convenient for you, too?”

“But we can look at other cities,” said Michaela.

“Let’s do that,” said Brian.  “In major cities across the nation, crime decreased, without a Giuliani or his approach.  DC dropped 58%, Dallas 70%, Newark 74%, LA 78%.”[13]

“Okay,” said Michaela, “fair point.  Did any other countries switch from leaded to unleaded gasoline, and see a drop in crime?”

“Yes,” Brian answered.  “Britain, Canada, France, Australia, Finland, Italy, West Germany, and New Zealand.[14]  In the U.S., we observe it by state,[15] and by city,[16] since the change in gasoline type happened in different places at different times.”

“So lead poisoning through gas fumes has a correlation to violent crime,” admitted Michaela.  “But was it a cause?”

“It’s worth more investigation.  Versus “broken windows policing,” which has no correlation,” said Brian.  “So can we stop considering it?”

Theories of Policing and Racial Implications

“If you or Barry Latzer,” said Brian, “want to blame black migration to Northern cities for the rise in crime, then you also have to explain why crime rates dropped.  Did black people migrate back South?  No.  And Latzer, for example, acknowledges that his explanation of “black culture” doesn’t explain why violent crime dropped:[17]


“Now wait a minute,” Michaela interrupted.  “You don’t think more incarceration has helped bring down crime rates?[18]  At all?”

“Many experts say that the impact was small,”[19] Brian replied.  “Other countries also experienced a rise then fall in violent crime without much change in their incarceration rates, so if incarceration is so vital, then why didn’t they need more of it?[20]  And incarceration from the “war on drugs” might have kept American crime rates higher for longer.  It kept police harassing black people for petty issues like loitering.  Meanwhile New York City police solve only 45% of homicides when the victim is black or Hispanic, versus 86% when the victim is white.[21]  Do black deaths matter?  If black people can’t trust the police to help where it really counts, is it a surprise to find more violence among young black people in urban areas?

“Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder.  It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death.  It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”[22]

“Meanwhile,” continued Brian, “the “war on drugs” took a devastating toll of collateral damage on children and neighborhoods.  People accumulate incredible debts while in prison.[23]  When they get out, they are often stripped of public housing assistance,[24] food stamps,[25] and even voting rights.[26]  Men who want to live with their families and children risk making them lose public assistance if they do.  So which families are “family-values conservatives” trying to help?  Many ex-felons can’t get meaningful jobs, or living wage jobs.

“Already economically-fragile communities sank into depths of poverty unknown for generations, simply because anyone with a criminal record is forever “marked” as dangerous and thus rendered all but permanently unemployable. Also, with blacks incarcerated at six times and Latinos at three times the rate of whites by 2010, millions of children living in communities of color have effectively been orphaned.  Worse yet, these kids often experience high rates of post-traumatic shock from having witnessed the often-brutal arrests of their parents and having been suddenly ripped from them.”[27]

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:

“The emergence of the carceral state has had far-reaching consequences for the economic viability of black families… Even in the booming ’90s, when nearly every American demographic group improved its economic position, black men were left out… Many fathers simply fall through the cracks after they’re released. It is estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of all parolees in Los Angeles and San Francisco are homeless.”[28]

Isn’t prison time enough?  Why do we keep punishing people?  When are people done paying for their crimes?”

Restorative Justice and Jesus

“This might seem strange to you,” said Brian, “but I want to mention that my faith background plays a role in what I think about the victim-offender relationship.”

“How so?” Michaela asked.  “I don’t think I’ve heard many people say that.”

“I am a Christian” said Brian.  “And I believe that Jesus came to restore people to who God wanted us to be originally.  Therefore, I believe in restorative justice over meritocratic-retributive justice.”

“What does that mean, especially about the issues of crime and race that we’ve been discussing?” asked Michaela.

“It means,” said Brian, “that an offender should help restore the harm they’ve done to a victim.  So it’s not that there are no consequences.  And for some people, we’d still need prisons.  But restorative justice is different from retributive justice because in retributive justice, the idea is that an offender should suffer something proportional to what they’ve inflicted on someone else.”

“An eye for an eye, right?” said Michaela.  “Isn’t that what the Bible says?”

“I’m glad you brought that up,” replied Brian.  “Because that’s not what it means.  Jewish rabbis made a joke about it.  They asked what would happen if the offender were already blind, since you can’t blind an already blind man!  So they said that if you blind someone’s eye, you need to become his “second eye.”[29]  You become his help.  The larger context of the first mention of “an eye for an eye” in Exodus 21 supports that.  In the first case of Exodus 21:18 – 19, God deals with a case of bodily harm, and tells the offender to help the victim “until he is completely healed.”  That’s the victim-centered principle of restorative justice.  The offender has to help restore the harm he did.  Then, in another situation right afterwards, God says that an offender has to financially compensate a family for loss of a person’s life, in Exodus 21:30, or an employer in a labor contract situation in Exodus 21:32.”

“I’ve not considered that, or heard of that before,” said Michaela.  “And I have a lot more questions for you.  Barry Latzer and others have said that the culture of the American South is retributive.  And they argue that it’s because of the Scots-Irish in Britain were animal herders.  You’re saying there is a religious factor?”

“Yes,” said Brian.  “The Scots-Irish in Britain were not just herders, but Presbyterians.  Following their founder, John Calvin, they believed in a very retributive God.  That belief has been critiqued heavily, because it’s clearly connected to punitive retribution towards offenders.[30] One very good recent book is by Dominique Gilliard, Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores.[31]  Most Americans were Protestants of some sort, and that shaped our criminal justice system because our emotions were shaped by fear and anger.  A century ago, conservative white evangelicals supported the lynching of African Americans as an expression of retributive justice outside the courtroom.[32]  White evangelicals defended the Vietnam War when the rest of the country did not.[33]  Today, evangelicals favor capital punishment more than the overall population.[34]  White evangelicals are more likely than the general population to justify torture of terrorists or even suspected terrorists.[35]  And just in case you think that the word ‘evangelical’ is based only on a self-reported label, the Pew Research Trust says that they measured behavior:  ‘Attend religious service at least weekly’ or ‘monthly a few times a year’ or ‘seldom or never.’  The percentage of people agreeing with the use of torture increases with the frequency of attending a religious service.[36]  And whereas in 2012, a group of religious leaders released ‘A Call from the Faith-Based Community to Stop Drone Killings,’ Southern Baptist flagship Liberty University offers a focus in Unmanned Aerial Systems, to train drone pilots.[37]  Despite the clear lack of justification under the just war criteria, evangelicals rushed to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.[38]  The Southern Baptist Convention even officially supported the Iraq War.”[39]

Brian continued, “We talked before (in post #11) about how, if your brother or cousin was an offender, you’d want him to be given an instructive or restorative consequence.  The less we identify with offenders, the more retributive we become towards them.  That’s why white people see the opioid epidemic as an “epidemic” rather than an opioid “crime wave.”  It’s seen as a complex public health issue rather than a simplistic end-user crime issue.  And that’s where white people emotionally distancing themselves from black people hit hardest.  The psychology of racism is a perception of criminality.  It feeds on fear, then anger.  But just imagine:  Restorative justice in black communities would mean as many offenders as possible (and I admit, some might be too violent) giving back to their victims and their community in some way.  Restorative justice in race relations would mean white people helping restore the harm they’ve done to people of other races.  And, Christian restorative justice isn’t just about how to handle injury.  It’s about restoring God’s original vision for relationships.  What do we owe one another?  The answer to that question affects housing, education, economics, and power, and our relationship with the environment.”

“I’m not a Christian, but I want to ask you more questions about all this,” said Michaela.


[1] Alexia Cooper and Erica L. Smith, “Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980 – 2008,” U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2011,, p.3

[2] This is the type of statistical storytelling that white nationalist sites like Breitbart promote.  For deeper analysis, see Patrick Worrall, “Do Black Americans Commit More Crime?” Channel 4 News, November 27, 2014,

[3] Barry Latzer, The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2016).  Latzer’s work has been praised by conservative journalists like David Frum, “The Cultural Roots of Crime,” The Atlantic, June 19, 2016,; The Federalist Staff, “Barry Latzer on Violent Crime, Drugs, and #BlackLivesMatter,” The Federalist, January 20, 2016,; and Alfred S. Regnery, “Black-on-Black Crime: Blame It On the System and Ignore the Evidence,” Breitbart, May 24, 2016,  A very good direct response to Latzer comes from German Lopez, “Confronting the Myth that “Black Culture” is Responsible for Violent Crime in America, Vox, September 1, 2016,; German Lopez also links to three articles from Ta-Nehisi Coates which are important.

[4] One response can be seen in Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Other People’s Pathologies,” The Atlantic, March 30, 2014, who insists that “black culture” and “culture of poverty” need to remain separate categories.

[5] Latzer quotes from psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen, Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996), who observe:

“Unlike the North, which was settled by farmers from England, Holland, and Germany, the South was settled by herdsmen from the fringes of Britain. Herdsmen the world over tend to be capable of great aggressiveness and violence because of their vulnerability to losing their primary resources, their animals. Also, unlike the North, where population densities have been in general relatively high, the South was a low-population frontier region until well into the nineteenth century. In such regions the state often has little power to command compliance with the law, and citizens have to create their own system of order. The means for doing this is the rule of retaliation: If you cross me, I will punish you.”

This thesis is also explored by Cameron Joseph, “The Scots-Irish Vote,” The Atlantic, October 6, 2009, and Whet Moser, “American Violence and Southern Culture,” Chicago Magazine, July 27, 2012, and substantiated by David Hackett Fisher, Albion’s Seed: Four British Pathways to America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).  The Scots-Irish were extremely poor whites who came from the northern border between England and Scotland where violence regularly broke out.  They were mostly Presbyterians, accustomed to slavery and larger inequalities in wealth yet based in honor-shame relations, and violently retributive, producing the Hatfields and McCoys.  They were the dominant influence in the South and Appalachian region.

[6] Indeed, see Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017), ch.9 narrates examples of white violence against black neighbors, including white police complicity:

“For two months law enforcement stood by as rocks were thrown, crosses were burned, the Ku Klux Klan symbol was painted on the wall of the clubhouse next door, and the home of a family that had supported the Myerses was vandalized.  Some policemen, assigned to protect the African American family, stood with the mob, joking and encouraging its participants.  One sergeant was demoted to patrolman because he objected to orders he had been given not to interfere with the rioters… Bill and Daisy Myers, feeling constantly under threat, lasted only another four years; in 1961, they sold their Levittown home and returned to the African American neighborhood in York, Pennsylvania, where they had previously lived.” (p.142)

[7] e.g. James Queally, “Watts Riots: Traffic Stop Was the Spark That Ignited Days of Destruction in L.A.” Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2015,

[8] Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).  See review by Willie Osterweil, “How White Liberals Used Civil Rights to Create More Prisons,” The Nation, January 6, 2015,, who writes:

“LBJ, faced with massive black uprisings, treated the riots not as political expression but rather as pure criminality. Drawing a hard line between protest and riots, treating the former as political speech but the latter as inchoate violence, is one way that liberals discredit resistance to impoverishment and brutality. LBJ could thus, without a lick of irony, compare Klansmen and black rioters of Watts as “what the law declares them: law breakers.” He “likened police and prisons to teachers and schools: all need federal funding to build a better society.” It’s hard to imagine a framework that equates black people rioting with KKK lynchings as a framework capable of achieving racial justice. Instead, civil-rights legislation looked to achieve order, and the end of black “crime.”

Osterweil also critiques Murakawa for her methodology.

“Murakawa’s method is to apply deconstruction to the congressional record, reading government documents in search of their guiding political and ideological assumptions. “Implicitly,” she argues, “this perspective discounts intentions, recognizing that racial power is not necessarily exerted by will.” Why wade through rancorous debate between liberals and conservatives if all the hubbub resulted in a massively bipartisan project of racist imprisonment?”

In response, Osterweil writes,

“There is a methodological problem that emerges from focusing on the congressional record to the exclusion of most other data, one that Murakawa indicates awareness of early in the book. The flawed ideological framework described by Murakawa is not the only reason we’re stuck with a metastasizing prison system, though it does explain the role of liberals in inventing it. There is no discussion of the fact that throughout the ’80s and ’90s the private prison lobby was writing bills and donating heavily to congresspeople. At the same time, Democrats, afraid of being seen as soft on crime, mercilessly raised federal sentencing minimums. When these congresspeople voted, were they afraid of a well-funded enemy or the electorate’s hysteria about crime, or both? And how did this hysteria come to overtake the public? By reading almost exclusively through congressional records, Murakawa leans on the reported intentions and positions of politicians, despite her disavowals. And this results in a convoluted understanding liberals’ relationship to social movements.”

Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016) also lays some of the blame on LBJ’s doorstep in ch.2, but discerns how political leadership henceforth used crime control as urban policy.  

[9] Heather Ann Thompson, “Inner-City Violence in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic, October 30, 2014, writes:

“When President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Law Enforcement Assistance Act in 1965… he was reacting not to remarkable crime rates but to the civil rights upheaval that had erupted nationwide just the year before. This activism, he and other politicians believed, represented not participatory democracy in action, but instead a criminal element that would only grow more dangerous if not checked.”

Thompson therefore disagrees with Murakawa and Osterweil, above, about how LBJ and other white elites perceived and treated the Civil Rights Movement.  As evidence that Thompson is correct, consider LBJ’s opposition to the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, co-led by Fannie Lou Hamer.  Also, Lisa Jardine, “Lyndon B. Johnson: The Uncivil Rights Reformer,” The UK Independent, January 21, 2009,, notes,

“In private, Johnson confided to members of his close team that he feared his advocacy for civil rights would permanently alienate the South from the Democrats, and lose him the 1964 presidential election.”

[10] Data from U.S. Department of Justice, FBI: Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, but organized by Disaster Center,, assembled and graphed by Mako A. Nagasawa

[11] Heather Ann Thompson, “Inner-City Violence in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic, October 30, 2014,

[12] Lead affects the brain, and leads to more aggressive and risky behavior, lower IQ, hyperactivity, and learning disabilities.  The easiest summary is by Kevin Drum, “Lead: America’s Real Criminal Element,” Mother Jones, February 11, 2016,

[13] Kevin Drum, above, notes:  “In city after city, violent crime peaked in the early ’90s and then began a steady and spectacular decline.”

[14] Rick Nevin, “Understanding International Crime Trends: The Legacy of Preschool Lead Exposure,” Journal of Environmental Research 104 (2007): p.315 – 336,  See review by Kevin Drum, above.

[15]  Kevin Drum, above, summarizes the research by Jessica Wolpaw Reyes:

“If childhood lead exposure really did produce criminal behavior in adults, you’d expect that in states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime would decline slowly too. Conversely, in states where it declined quickly, crime would decline quickly. And that’s exactly what she found.”

Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, “Environmental Policy as Social Policy? The Impact of Childhood Lead Exposure on Crime,” National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Working Paper No.13097, May 2007,  See also Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, “Lead Exposure and Behavior: Effects on Antisocial and Risky Behavior among Children and Adolescents,” NBER Working Paper No.20366, August 2014 and October 2014, Linda Gorman, “The Impact of Childhood Lead Exposure on Adult Crime,” NBER, summarizes the research:

“Sizeable reductions in childhood blood lead levels followed: according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1976-80 and 1998-2002 average blood lead levels in children aged 1 to 5 decreased from 15.0 to 1.9 micrograms per deciliter. The EPA specifically targeted reductions of grams of lead per gallon, and imposed this regulation on petroleum companies, not states. Reyes takes advantage of the resulting state-level variation in the phaseout to identify a link between childhood lead exposure and adult crime. Joining measures of lead exposure from 1955 to 1990 with crime rates twenty years later (from 1985 to 2002), Reyes concludes that lead exposure may have been an important factor in the rise and fall of violent crime over the last thirty years. The net social value of the lead phaseout and the associated crime reductions is large, she writes: the cost of removing the lead from gasoline is approximately twenty times smaller than the full value (including quality of life) of the crime reductions.”

[16] Howard W.Mielke and Sammy Zahran, “The Urban Rise and Fall of Air Lead (Pb) and the Latent Surge and Retreat of Societal Violence,” Environment International, Volume 43, August 2012, p.48 – 55,, also discussed by Kevin Drum, above.

[17] Note:  Rape increased, in part because the FBI broadened its definition, and in part because, as most scholars and law enforcement officials believe, more rapes are being reported.  One suspects that rape rates were much higher in 1960 than reported.  Samantha Cooney, “Reported Rapes Increased Second Year In a Row,” Time, September 27, 2016, and Sierra Jackson, “FBI Report Shows Almost 20 Percent Increase in Reported Rapes,” NBC Miami, October 3, 2018,

[18] Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt, “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors that Explain the Decline and Six that Do Not,” Journal of Economics Perspectives, Volume 18, Number 1, Winter 2014, p.163-190, argues that incarceration contributed to 58% of the drop in crime in the 1990’s.

[19] Dara Lind and German Lopez, “16 Theories for Why Crime Plummeted in the US,” Vox, May 20, 2015, critique Barry Latzen, saying,

“These studies were based on older data that only included a few years of the crime decline. Levitt acknowledged he couldn’t account for the point of diminishing returns: there are only so many serious criminals out there, and after a certain point the people getting put in prison aren’t people who’d be committing crime after crime on the street. The higher the incarceration rate gets, the less it matters if you increase that rate even more. Studies that examine more recent data, after the point of diminishing returns has been hit, find that incarceration wasn’t nearly as influential.

“Incarcerating violent people has a big effect on violence,” John Roman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, said. “But most people we incarcerate aren’t violent.” The diminishing returns aren’t only about who’s being put in prison, but how long people remain there. The research suggests that people age out of crime, so letting them out of prison 10 or 20 years down the line — instead of the longer sentences applied today — might not pose a threat to public safety. “Crime is a young man’s endeavor,” Brian Elderbroom, senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, said in December. “It’s not surprising that someone who commits a crime at a young age would be a completely different person by the time they’re in their 30s.”

The other problem with this theory is that incarceration rates were increasing for years before crime started going down.

The bottom line: A small effect. Criminologists now tend to believe that incarceration accounts for a fraction of the drop in crime, but no more. The Brennan Center report estimates that incarceration played even less of a role than that: up to 12 percent of the drop in property crime during the 1990s was due to the rise in incarceration, but it was probably more like 6 percent. And it contributed to 1 percent, at most, of the continued property crime decline in the 2000s. Furthermore, the Brennan Center concluded that the rising incarceration rates through the 1980s had already locked up the truly violent criminals, and the point of diminishing returns was hit even before the crime rate started to fall.”

[20] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic, October 2015, observes,

“The rise and fall in crime in the late 20th century was an international phenomenon. Crime rates rose and fell in the United States and Canada at roughly the same clip—but in Canada, imprisonment rates held steady. “If greatly increased severity of punishment and higher imprisonment rates caused American crime rates to fall after 1990,” the researchers Michael Tonry and David P. Farrington have written, then “what caused the Canadian rates to fall?” The riddle is not particular to North America. In the latter half of the 20th century, crime rose and then fell in Nordic countries as well. During the period of rising crime, incarceration rates held steady in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden—but declined in Finland. “If punishment affects crime, Finland’s crime rate should have shot up,” Tonry and Farrington write, but it did not. After studying California’s tough “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law—which mandated at least a 25-year sentence for a third “strikeable offense,” such as murder or robbery—researchers at UC Berkeley and the University of Sydney, in Australia, determined in 2001 that the law had reduced the rate of felony crime by no more than 2 percent. Bruce Western, a sociologist at Harvard and one of the leading academic experts on American incarceration, looked at the growth in state prisons in recent years and concluded that a 66 percent increase in the state prison population between 1993 and 2001 had reduced the rate of serious crime by a modest 2 to 5 percent—at a cost to taxpayers of $53 billion.”

[21] Edwin Rios and Kai Wright, “Black Deaths Matter,” Mother Jones, May/June 2015,  See also German Lopez, “Police Are Much Less Likely to Solve Homicides When the Victims Are Black,” Vox, June 11, 2015,  Nationwide, the difference is 67% when homicide victims are black or brown, vs. 78% when the victim is white.

[22] Jill Leony, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America (New York, NY: Random House, 2015) focuses on Los Angeles, CA but shines a spotlight on how crimes are often taken seriously based on the victim(s) involved.  This goes a long way in explaining why black-on-black crime is high.

[23] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2011), p.155 writes,

“Throughout the United States, newly released prisoners are required to make payments to a host of agencies, including probation departments, courts, and child-support enforcement offices. In some jurisdictions, ex-offenders are billed for drug testing and even for the drug treatment they are supposed to receive as a condition of parole. These fees, costs, and fines are generally quite new – created by law within the past twenty years – and are associated with a wide range of offenses. Every state has its own rules and regulations governing their imposition. Florida, for example, has added more than twenty new categories of financial obligations for criminal defendants since 1996, while eliminating most exemptions for those who cannot pay… [Interest on debt is also charged; for example,] Alabama charges a 30 percent collection fee, and Florida allows private debt collectors to tack on a 40 percent surcharge to the underlying debt.”

[24] Michelle Alexander, ch.4 points out that The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 called for ex-criminals to be denied public housing assistance. The act gave public housing agencies the authority to evict any tenant, household member, or guest, engaged in any criminal activity, on or near public housing premises.  The Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998 permitted agencies to bar applicants believed to be using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol, regardless of whether they had been convicted of a crime. President Clinton proposed a ‘one strike and you’re out’ legislation such that even if a guest is convicted of using illegal drugs, the tenant will be evicted from public housing.  In Rucker v. Davis (2002), Perlie Rucker was evicted following the arrest of her daughter for possession of cocaine a few blocks from home. Rucker was thrown out of public housing. (Also, William Lee and Barbara Hill were evicted after their grandsons were charged with smoking marijuana in a parking lot near their apartments. Herman Walker was evicted after police found cocaine on his caregiver.) SCOTUS upheld these evictions.

“More than 650,000 people are released from prison each year, and for many, finding a new home appears next to impossible, not just in the short term, but for the rest of their lives.” (p.148)

[25] Michelle Alexander, p.157 – 158, discusses Bill Clinton’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Family Program (1996). It required states to permanently bar people with drug-related felony convictions from receiving federally funded assistance.

“Most states have partially opted out, affording exceptions for people in drug treatment, for example. It remains the case, however, that thousands of people… are deemed ineligible for food stamps for the rest of their lives, including pregnant women, people in drug treatment or recovery, and people suffering from HIV/AIDS – simply because they were once caught with drugs.”

[26] Michelle Alexander, p.158 writes,

“‘The vast majority of states continue to withhold the right to vote when prisoners are released on parole. Even after the term of punishment expires, some states deny the right to vote for a period ranging from a number of years to the rest of one’s life. This is far from the norm in other countries – like Germany, for instance, which allows (and even encourages) prisoners to vote. In fact, about half of European countries allow all incarcerated people to vote, while others disqualify only a small number of prisoners from the polls… No other country in the world disenfranchises people who are released from prison in a way even remotely resembling the United States. In fact, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has charged that U.S. disenfranchisement policies are discriminatory and violate international law.”

Even veterans convicted of minor drug possession charges (e.g. marijuana) are unable to vote.

[27] Heather Ann Thompson, “Inner-City Violence in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic, October 30, 2014,

[28] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic, October 2015, adds,

“Employment and poverty statistics traditionally omit the incarcerated from the official numbers. When [Harvard sociologist Bruce] Western recalculated the jobless rates for the year 2000 to include incarcerated young black men, he found that joblessness among all young black men went from 24 to 32 percent; among those who never went to college, it went from 30 to 42 percent. The upshot is stark… The illusion of wage and employment progress among African American males was made possible only through the erasure of the most vulnerable among them from the official statistics.”

[29] “An eye for an eye” is a principle in Exodus 21:23 – 25 that Jewish rabbinical commentators interpret as a representation of proportional financial compensation (Talmud BavaKamma 83b – 84a) or, in some cases, lashes (Makot 1:1).  Notice also, Leviticus 19:17 – 18 commands a response to one’s neighbor at all times, which can only be integrated with Exodus 21 in a restorative justice paradigm:

(A) 17a: You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart;
(B) 17b: you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him.
(A’) 18a: You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people,
(B’) 18b: but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.

The step parallelism is a well-understood Hebrew poetic and narrative device.  A parallels A’.  B parallels B’.

[30] For a readable blog post comparing restorative vs. retributive justice, see Mako A. Nagasawa, “Interpreting Jesus and Atonement – Practical Issue #6:  Is Retributive Justice the Highest Form of Justice?  Does Atonement Theology Impact Our Framework for Criminal Justice?” New Humanity Institute blog, September 9, 2015,  The first theological scholar to make this association is Timothy J. Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Vengeance, and the Rhetoric of Salvation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.140 who says,

“Wherever Calvinism [meaning penal substitutionary atonement and the idea of a retributive God] spread, punitive sentencing followed.”

Christopher D. Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), p.60 explores this further and cites Gorringe.  The precise relationship between theology and social movements is generally difficult to trace, as we might argue that the ‘rediscovery’ of Roman law and Latin sources in the 12th century, especially at the Bologna University in Italy, along with Renaissance humanism from the 14th, influenced Christian theology throughout Europe.  Nevertheless, my point here is that the theological elevation of retributive-meritocratic justice to the center of God’s character – which lies at the heart of penal substitution atonement theology – certainly has made it difficult for those Christian adherents to consider other principles and forms of justice.  See also Kaia Stern, Voices from American Prisons: Hope, Education, and Healing (New York: Routledge, 2015), especially p.39.  Stern also explores the major influence on John Calvin, Augustine of Hippo, who said that God gives grace to some and not others, for inscrutable and arbitrary reasons.  Augustine broke with the Greek and Latin Christian tradition before him which understood God as giving grace to all, which thus enabled human free will.  The division of humanity into two categories had this effect:

“Augustine’s belief in the natural inequality of mankind and his notion of original sin [that we inherit the personal guilt of Adam and Eve, and not just their corrupted nature in what the Eastern Orthodox call “ancestral sin”] have been applied to validate oppressive and dehumanizing institutions (like chattel slavery) in an effort to preserve “social order” and promote the “human good.”  More significantly, his view of original sin, which was central to the religious worldview of Protestant colonial America, profoundly shaped US attitudes and policies toward crime and punishment.”

See also T. Richard Snyder, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000); James Samuel Logan, Good Punishment? Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008); Darrin W. Snyder-Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012); Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “Catholic Faith and the Urgency of Criminal Justice Reform,” America: The Jesuit Review, June 27, 2018;

[31] Dominique Gilliard, Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), ch.8 – 10 cites penal substitutionary atonement as the major flaw in Protestant theology, precisely because it must presume that God’s justice is retributive, not restorative.  For our study and action guide to Gilliard’s book, see  Vinson Cunningham, “How the Idea of Hell Has Shaped the Way We Think,” The New Yorker, January 19, 2019, gives an astute cultural analysis.  To see the understanding of hell as a state of being chosen by people where the love of God becomes torment, a view held by the early church, uniformly by the Eastern Orthodox, many Roman Catholics, and an increasing number of Protestants like C.S. Lewis who read the earliest Christian sources, see the citations and resources offered here:

[32] Mako A. Nagasawa, “Atonement in Scripture: What Lynching, Torture & Scapegoating Have in Common: Penal Substitution,” New Humanity Institute blog, February 18, 2016,

[33] Anne C. Loveland, American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military 1942 – 1993 (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1997)

[34] H. Prejean, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States (New York: Random House, 1993), p. 124.

[35] Sarah Posner, ‘Christians More Supportive of Torture Than Non-Religious Americans,’ Religion Dispatches, December 16, 2014, finds that when asked about the controversial CIA waterboarding treatment of men suspected of being terrorists and detained at Guantanamo Bay, 69% of white evangelicals believe it was justified; only 20% said it was not; that compares to 59% of the general population believing it was justified.  See also Steve Benen, ‘This Week in God 12.20.14,’ The Rachel Maddow Show MSNBC, December 20, 2014;

[36] Pew Research Forum, “The Religious Dimension of the Torture Debate,” Pew Research Center, April 29, 2009;

[37] Liberty University, School of Aeronautics;

[38] Jon Basil Utley, “Evangelicals, Ron Paul, and War,” The American Conservative, January 20, 2012,; Ethan Cole, “Most Evangelical Leaders Still Support Iraq War,” Christian Post, February 12, 2008,  It is noteworthy that the only Congressperson to vote against giving President G.W. Bush war power in Afghanistan was Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) of Oakland, CA, who is a black woman and a Christian, who voted after praying in the National Cathedral; see The Editors, “Barbara Lee’s Stand,” The Nation, September 20, 2001,

[39] Southern Baptist Convention, “On the Liberation of Iraq,” Phoenix 2003, declared,

“…WHEREAS We believe Operation Iraqi Freedom was a warranted action based upon historic principles of just war; now, therefore, be it RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, June 17–18, 2003, affirm President George W. Bush, the United States Congress, and our armed forces for their leadership in the successful execution of Operation Iraqi Freedom…”


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