Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Reforming Criminals

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 11, 2011

The only daily paper we get in our household is the local paper which covers our town and county in Northern Virginia, or about 375,000 souls. Despite this modest population, nearly every day there is a new local disaster on the front page, very often a crime—burglary, armed robbery, assault, child pornography, even murder. Some of the reports are perversely humorous, as in the recent robbery of a convenience store in which the perpetrator used a six-foot broken branch as a weapon; or the effort to steal a van while the owner was busy in the back. But we’ve had a string of over twenty burglaries in nearby neighborhoods in recent weeks, there have been some unprovoked gang attacks, and today we learned about the first murder of the new year.

Crimes of passion—and the violent use of an available knife or hand gun in a sudden quarrel—are to some degree understandable, as is the increased incidence of random violence in a crumbling society which is increasingly incapable of nurturing well-adjusted and fundamentally happy people. But consistent criminal activity is a trickier subject; one wonders about the causes that lead someone down that path. A great deal of ink has been spilled over the past fifty years on the sociology of crime, and in particular the degree to which the criminal is himself a victim who cannot be held completely responsible for his actions. Among various attempts to identify root problems, we have seen indictments of society as a whole, of capitalism in particular, and even of the criminal justice system itself.

One man who works directly in this area of assessing criminal responsibility believes that such analyses are fundamentally unproductive. David H. Lukenbill, himself a former 20-year criminal and founder of The Lampstand Foundation, puts the matter succinctly: “In the work of criminal reformation, it is vital to keep in mind that the criminal is the problem.” Lukenbill now devotes his life to criminal reformation, and to recruiting other former criminals who have gone on to convert or come back to their Catholic faith (as Lukenbill did) to work directly to touch and transform others.

Another point Lukenbill makes is that most current efforts at criminal rehabilitation exhibit little success, or perhaps even what we might euphemistically call negative success. Again and again he points to studies which show that criminals who participate in rehabilitation programs have a recidivation rate slightly higher than non-participant control groups. This is often true with not only secular but faith-based programs. This sobering fact, which Lukenbill attributes partly to what he calls the “hardening and deepening of the criminal/carceral [prison] world over the past several decades”, has led him to a conclusion which lies at the heart of his apostolic work: “It takes a reformed criminal to reform criminals.”

Lukenbill believes that a reformed criminal can both understand the criminal mindset and relate to the criminal in ways that maximize the chance of long-term success. The type of reformed criminal Lukenbill is looking for is not just one who has embraced the Catholic Faith—though that is central—but one who has gone on to seek an appropriate graduate degree or other professional training as well as a deeper understanding of Catholic social teaching. He wants people who are prepared by both personal experience and education to contribute to the reform effort, and he is convinced that Catholic social teaching is the only system of thought which, as he put it, can “trump” the criminal mindset at every turn.

This last point is extremely interesting, and it brings us back to questions about the larger social order. Lukenbill is saying, in effect, that the criminal mentality is based (more or less deliberately) on a skewed theory of how society works or ought to work. It is therefore hard to counter without a comprehensive and compelling theory of one’s own. For David Lukenbill, Catholic social teaching provided that alternative theory—a consistent narrative of how society ought to work which can get inside even a criminal’s head.

This is worth pursuing. Just as we can be surprised from time to time by encountering a new sort of job or profession—one that we hadn’t imagined existed before (a phenomenon which inspired several stories by G. K. Chesterton growing out of his club of queer trades)—we can be both surprised and blessed by the knowledge that there is no end to the number of Catholic apostolates needed to address the problems of a fallen world. The Lampstand Foundation may be justly added to an ever-growing and inspirational list. For those interested, David Lukenbill also writes a blog covering news and developments in criminal rehabilitation at Catholic Eye.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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