Henry David Thoureau observed, "For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root." I was reminded of this when I reflected on the rising recidivism rate Delaware is facing. Approximately two thirds of inmates released from Delaware prisons return to serve second and third terms, which in turn contributes to public safety concerns and overcrowded situations.
Marlene Lichtenstadter, in her article "Returning sentencing to judges would help reduce recidivism", reminded us that in 1982 Delaware's prison population was around 1,800. The current population, according to Lichtenstadter, is over 7,000. Lichtenstadter says, "I am persuaded that this legislation (House Bill 71 which calls for the repeal of mandatory minimum drug laws) will contribute to reducing recidivism, costly prison construction and overcrowding."
While I applaud her optimism and activism there is something deeper going on that is being missed by legislators and representatives alike. While politicians are hacking at the roots of evil, namely mandatory minimum drug laws, there is a root cause of recidivism and even crime itself that is being overlooked to the peril of all Delawareans. It is the root cause of fatherless families.
As legislators seek sentencing reform I believe they are asking the wrong questions. They are asking, "How can we keep criminals from re offending and costing us money?" when they should be asking, "What can we do to keep children from becoming criminals in the first place?" After all, the grown men and women committing these crimes were once little children. Before they were ever spending recreational time in the courtyards of prisons they were playing in the backyards and streets of Delaware communities.
What happened? How did they go from kids to criminals? I believe that in many cases these children lacked proper male role models in their lives who could show them how to be responsible contributing citizens. Many of these criminals were raised in environments without a father to turn to for help. According to the U.S. Census Bureau statistics the number and proportion of households without fathers has increased from 6 million (6.6 of all households) in 1990 to 7.6 million (7.2 of all households) in 2000.
Is there any question that not having a father in the home negatively impacts young men and women? To some there is but not to me. I see a direct correlation between increases in national crime rates and increases in the number of households that do not have a father present. Dave Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute cites William Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute, as observing that most factors normally used to determine the crime rate have not changed since 1960.
Factors such as male unemployment, the poverty rate, and the percentage of church members have remained essentially the same. Niskanen asserts that "the one condition that has changed substantially is the percentage of births to single mothers, increasing 5 percent in 1960 to 28 percent in 1991. Since 1991 the trend of fatherless families has only increased and shows no signs of slowing down.
If we are truly concerned about public safety and the future of Delaware itself, why are we not focusing on the root cause of crime and recidivism found in the epidemic of fatherless families? Unless we begin to ask better questions we should only expect more of the same when it comes to repeat offending and prison overcrowding.
As Pat Moynihan has so aptly remarked "From the wild Irish slums of the nineteenth-century Eastern seaboard to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any rational expectations about the future - that community asks for and gets chaos...[In such a society] crime, violence, unrest, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure - these are not only to be expected, they are virtually inevitable."
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