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What Causes Crime? Observations from Serving in Prison

As you might have noticed, politicians on the campaign trail have “crime” on their minds. Republicans and Democrats alike tell voters that they have the solution, that they alone can make our streets safe again. Crime rates are falling nationwide but according to polling, Americans still believe crime is on the rise.[1] Perceptions matter and the reality is clear – people don’t feel safe.


Part of HeartBound’s mission is to break generational cycles of crime and incarceration. After a conversation with a mother whose son is about to be sent to a state prison, I thought about what “generational cycles” meant. In an attempt to learn more, I started researching what causes crime. I’ve long suspected that a lot of people are in prison because they’re poor, yet research shows that crime is not caused by poverty.[2] In one study published in 2023, people that won the lottery in Sweden did not go on to commit fewer crimes (see the full study for yourself here). Lottery winners receive an influx of cash, instantly lifting them out of poverty and into higher stratospheres of wealth and prestige, giving them access to resources that poorer people lack. According to the prevailing and predominant perception that poverty causes crime, these newfound gains in wealth should have prevented crime and incarceration – but they didn’t. Data shows that “randomly increasing a person’s income does not reduce their crime rate.”[3]


So, what’s happening here? What’s causing crime?


Turns out the so-called experts simply don’t know. Some studies believe up to 45% of criminal behavior may be influenced by hereditability/genetics.[4] The FBI postulates that other factors have an outsized influence – population density, climate, effective strength of law enforcement, crime reporting practices of the citizens.[5] More policing and more incarceration does not reduce crime; Dr. Goff, a professor at Yale University writes, “if throwing money at police and prisons made us safer, we would probably already be the safest country in the history of the world.”[6]


Every study I read has a different theory to explain crime. If none of them can agree, what is true? From observations I’ve made while ministering in prison, I believe that crime is largely driven by culture, by a lack of hope, by despair (after all, despair is the absence of hope). If you grow up in a neighborhood where the best jobs are at the local retail box-store and your streets and sidewalks are overflowing with trash and littered with drug paraphernalia, it’s harder to dream of a better life. If the only artwork you ever see is graffiti and the only gardens you ever visit are overgrown clay-stained parks, you gradually adopt a mentality that life and society have left you behind, that you have been abandoned to your own means, that a government by and for the people is for other people, and that your wellbeing matters less than that of people of means. It certainly doesn’t help that politicians and academics tell people that it’s not their fault and remind them that they are victims of an “oppressive” or inherently racist system. Such rhetoric does nothing to better anyone’s life and simply makes one side feel guilty and the other side feel helpless. America is the “land of opportunity,” but if you read the news, scroll social media, or listen to a debate, scientists and politicians have ditched the opportunity rhetoric and replaced it with “oppression.”


The victim rhetoric being preached today stirs division, dehumanizing the “others” and leaving young children bitter and cynical. In turn, they are more easily influenced by the aura and perceived “glory” of local gangs. Music and movies glorify “gang-life” and “getting paid,” further driving impressionable young minds towards crime. I meet a lot of young men who are in prison for stealing cars. You know why they steal cars? It’s not to sell them, it’s not to use them to commit robberies or other crimes, most of these young men take them for joyrides that they broadcast on live on Instagram. Kids are going to prison because they want to “show off for the ‘Gram.” It’s heartbreaking. The local gang has replaced the nuclear family that is psychologically, physically, economically, and emotionally fundamental to America’s greatness.


What to do then? How do you fix a broken culture? The answer, I believe, is to immerse yourself in the culture, to go to the very people that this broken culture is destroying and leading to chains. After all, isn’t that what Jesus did? 


Nothing is going to get better by sitting idly and wringing our hands. We have to go into communities and work to make a difference. We have to bridge divides, promote hope, and show that Christians still care about our neighbors. We have to live out Christian values, remember those in prison, and love one another. We have to help guide people to morality, to physically and spiritually demonstrate that they are not forgotten, that we are not afraid to serve on the front battlelines of good vs. evil. Every person we send to prison is a reflection of our own society’s educational, emotional, and spiritual failures. In Georgia, we are losing the battle – the State of Georgia incarcerates more of its population per-capita than any other nation in the world – that includes places like Russia and Iran, places led by tyrannical autocrats who are proudly anti-Christian.[7] Georgia’s state motto is “Wisdom, Justice, and Moderation,” but where’s the wisdom, justice, or moderation with 451,000 Georgia residents behind bars or under community supervision?[8]


As Zack Stanton writes, “America isn’t simply a story of bad things that have happened; it’s the story of people trying to make things better.”[9] Let us make things better – let us flood into our prisons, sharing goodness and light and hope. Let us pray for our neighbor, for our country, for the homeless and the destitute. Let us devote our time, energy, and resources to causes that matter and have an immediate and measurable impact on peoples’ lives.


We’re broken beings, we have been since the fall of Eden. Henry Miller wrote upon turning 80, “I have accepted the fact, hard as it may be, that human beings are inclined to behave in a way that would make animals blush. The ironic, the tragic thing is that we often behave in ignoble fashion from what we consider the highest motives. The animal makes no excuse for killing his prey; the human animal, on the other hand, can invoke God’s blessing when massacring his fellow men. He forgets that God is not on his side but at his side.”

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