Once again America is grieving. The deaths of five Dallas police officers; and two young men who died elsewhere having been shot by police, have rocked the nation. Set aside for a moment the politics and circumstances of these events and reflect on the fact that as a result today there are children without fathers, mothers without sons, wives without husbands, sisters without brothers.
The shootings, and the protests than inevitably follow, are becoming ever more common. What has become abundantly clear is there are inequities in our criminal justice system. The growing violence stemming from those inequities has made the already difficult job of law enforcement even tougher, which in turn has yielded more violence.
This being a presidential election year the powder keg upon which we sit will become even more volatile. President Obama is calling for more federal control over local police departments. Donald Trump struck a traditional tough on crime posture.
The solution is none of the above. More federal regulation only hamstrings local police and social services agencies, and filling our prisons even further does nothing to address the root cause of the problem. It is time to admit that, while government has a role, government alone cannot fix what is wrong.
What can government do?
Criminal justice reform is in fact one of the few areas of public policy where the Left and the Right have found some common ground. Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, speaking to the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference ([L]http://www.paleadershipconference.org/2015-videos/205-ken-cuccinelli-2015[EL]) last year explained it well: "Ninety-five percent of the people in our jails are coming back out. So we can ignore that, or we can make the criminal justice system be what it was supposed to be and that is an opportunity for rehabilitation, for correction and for improvement."
Some conservatives might recoil at that suggestion, but Cuccinelli explains: "I believe nobody is beyond redemption. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve punishment for doing wrong. But when you talk about literally or figuratively throwing away they key are you abandoning perhaps more important beliefs in your life?"
Those "more important beliefs" get to the heart of the ultimate solution, for our goal must be to prevent people from ending up in the criminal justice system in the first place. The root cause of the current crisis is as much societal than it is governmental.
I served for four years as a Dauphin County Commissioner with oversight of human services. During that time I watched many dedicated folks dealing with the result of what was a breakdown of family and community. Simply put, government does not and cannot have the resources necessary to supplant the many individual support networks that family, church, and community provide.
While we must work with law enforcement and improve our criminal justice system, the ultimate solution comes down to three things: faith, family and education. Until and unless we strengthen those institutions we cannot expect the situation to improve.
The removal of religion from the public square is not just some right wing talking point. Religion – Christian or other – has throughout history provided the moral underpinning of our society. It is through religion we learn not only rules of conduct, but find the most important of human yearnings including unconditional love, forgiveness and hope. In the absence of these vital intangibles people, particularly the young, fill the void with drugs and crime.
There has never been born that person who did not need the guidance and discipline of strong family ties. Define family in whatever way you will, but at the end of the day children and youth need someone who cares about them, provides for them, and nurtures them. In particular, the absence of fathers has contributed to a breakdown of the family unit. All of our institutions – government, school, church – must place an emphasis on responsible parenting.
The third fundamental building block of society is education. Rather than endless debates over the minimum wage we should be focused on educating people for jobs that pay a living wage. And that includes preparing students for the hundreds of thousands of high paying jobs in manufacturing that go unfilled. Our education system must bring everyone up to the starting gate of their work life fully equipped.
Rather than looking at government, or the police, or around the room at others, repairing what is wrong with America begins with each of us. We must strengthen our churches, our families and our communities. Then, and only then will what we have witnessed in recent weeks become the exception rather than the rule.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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