We Can't Reform Our Justice System Without Lifting Families

We Can't Reform Our Justice System Without Lifting Families

By Ken Blackwell and Rob Schwarzwalder Senior Fellow, Family Empowerment


Ken Blackwell is Senior Fellow for Family Empowerment and Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Federalist on October 22, 2015.


Common-sense criminal sentencing reform is gaining momentum. Presidential candidate Jeb Bush and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins are among the signers of the Right on Crime Statement of Principles, which argues for applying “conservative principles to criminal justice policy” as “vital to achieving a cost-effective system that protects citizens, restores victims, and reforms wrongdoers.” Earlier this year, a collation of extraordinary political bedfellows—ranging from Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley to Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—published a book of essays titled, “Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice Reform.”

What’s going on? Perkins, a former police officer, knows firsthand what is at stake when sentences are arbitrary, harsh, and simply unjust. He explains why so many political and other leaders are coming together on this critical issue.

Writing in 2013 about how to deal with nonviolent criminals, Perkins said, “Violent and career criminals must be locked up to protect society, and we must also exclude offenders whose crimes endanger their own children … But for many nonviolent offenders, we should do all we can to keep families together while maintaining public safety.”

One of us (Ken Blackwell) has been active in the “Fair Justice” movement, and noted recently, “Over the last decade, states like Texas, Utah, Georgia, and my home state of Ohio have been leaders in criminal justice reform, embracing policies that focus prison beds on serious and violent offenders. The results of these initiatives are staggering: lower costs for taxpayers alongside declining rates of incarceration, recidivism, arrest, and crime rates have continued to fall to decade lows.”

Don’t Forget Families

Encouraging violent criminal behavior through excessive punishment and long and close association of the non-violent with the violent is not only unjust but unwise. Yet in considering how we deal with offenders of all kinds, we have to confront a grim reality: A disproportionate number of offenders are African-American. Why? Is it because there’s something innate in black men that leads them into lives of crime?

‘Relative to other groups, blacks commit more crimes.’

Of course not. Racial injustice plays a role in the incarceration of so many black men, but so does what Kay Hymowitz, writing in The Atlantic earlier this month, calls “the breakdown of the black family.” She notes, “Relative to other groups, blacks commit more crimes. To understand why is to tackle some very hard-to-talk-about realities of black family life.”

Hymowitz, a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute, observes that “violent criminals continue to make up by far the largest cohort of the freshman class of prisoners—black, white, and Hispanic … The numbers are shocking but it seems worth noting that compared to other advanced nations, the United States also has by far the highest homicide rates even after years of decline.” Why? The black family’s deconstruction has a profound and undeniable correlative effect. We quote Hymowitz here at length:

Children suffer when their parents go to prison … the suffering of black children (accelerates by their) growing up in chaotic families, though that suffering is itself highly correlated with the scourge of ghetto crime and incarceration. Seventy-two percent of black children are born to unmarried mothers. The majority of those children will see contact with their fathers “drop sharply”; within a few years, about a third of dads will basically just disappear. Children don’t take well to the succession of partners, step- and half-siblings that follow their parents’ breakup. Studies, not just a few, but a slew of them, connect “multi-partner fertility” and father absence to behavior problems, aggression, and later criminality among boys even when controlling for race and income. Doesn’t that suggest black-family disruption could have some bearing on crime and incarceration rates?

Of course! Boys raised without involved, committed, and loving fathers who model and teach honorable behavior but who, instead, obtain their moral instruction from the streets will be much more prone to crime than otherwise.

Children Need Their Fathers

“Four decades of research and hundreds of studies have proven what should be obvious to everyone,” writes Skye Loyd at Parenting.com. “The more involved a dad is, the more successful his children will be. A father’s influence can determine a child’s social life, grades at school, and future achievements.”

It’s clear that fatherhood, perhaps most especially in the black community, is not what it should be.

The social science data demonstrate that “Boys close to their fathers have better attitudes about intimacy and the prospect of their own married lives than boys who do not feel close to their fathers, while adolescents who live without their father are more likely to engage in greater and earlier sexual activity, are more likely to become pregnant as a teenager, and are more likely to have a child outside of marriage.”

“Good fathering is characterized by warmth,” writes Dr. Jim Henderson. That’s why, in part, “Recognition of the importance of fathers to children’s development is increasing. Fathers play many roles: supporting the mother-infant relationship, nurturing, acting as mother surrogate, encouraging separation and individuation, setting up core sexual identify and developing sex role, and encouraging the development of conscience.”

Yet it’s clear that fatherhood, perhaps most especially in the black community, is not what it should be. According to Phillip Jackson, executive director of the Black Star Project, “Father absence in the African American communities, across America, has hit those communities with the force of 100 hurricane Katrinas. It is literally decimating our communities and we have no adequate response to it.”

In a study published earlier this year, Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI) scholars Pat Fagan and Christina Hadford found that “Today, only 17 percent of black teenagers reach age 17 in a family with both their biological parents married. In no state does this percentage exceed 30 percent.”

More Government Programs Aren’t the Answer

In a subsequent study, MARRI (a department within Family Research Council) notes that expanded or new government programs are not the answer:

Top-down government reform has largely failed and will likely continue to fail until leaders of other institutions in society (not just policymakers) promote intact married families, the strongest generator of educated youth, low delinquency, economic growth, and sexual mores. Major federal and state public policy outcomes illustrate government’s incompetence as an independent actor in maintaining social order, as well as its dependence on the intact married family for the achievement of its policy goals. Government will continue to fail to reduce these social problems as long as it sees itself as the primary actor. Other major institutions – churches, schools and universities, and even businesses – all need to play their role in restoring and supporting marriage where it is most vulnerable: among the poor.

Sentencing reform is needed. FRC’s friends at Justice Fellowship, a division of the late Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship, have some great ideas about how to “reform the criminal justice system so communities are safer, victims are respected, and lives are transformed,” and we urge all concerned with this key issue to visit their website to learn more. Criminal justice reform must get a fair and open hearing as Congress and the administration consider how to proceed.

Yet too much crime, whether violent or not, is committed both against and by men in the black community. That’s largely because, without a dad in the home, African-American boys are far too often raised amidst pain, brokenness, loneliness, and danger. Restoring the black family surely must be a priority for churches and all races and ethnicities throughout our country.

For an example of what one church can do to help strengthen the African-American family, go to the First Baptist Church of Glen Arden’s Shabach! Ministries website.