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Behind the Bars | What’s Missing in Criminal Justice System

If Johnny commits a crime and is found guilty, Johnny needs to be punished. We just take that for granted.

As adults, we know how the world works. The system works the way it does … well, just because. Why even care about Johnny? Why should we even ask about why we should punish Johnny?

There’s a lot of talk in the air about criminal justice reform, and I applaud that. It’s way overdue.

Questions concerning what sort of bad behavior should be punished and why should we punish should be at the heart and soul of that talk.

It’s central to our thinking and central to a huge amount of tax dollars, but we often gloss over those questions, favoring the dualistic thinking of good and evil – Johnny broke a law; Johnny should be punished.

That sort of approach absolves us of personal responsibility for what happens to Johnny and why it happens.

We congratulate the police, the prosecutor and the judge on another job well done, another crime solved, another bad man off the streets.

I often told my students the Bible is the greatest criminal justice text ever written. It’s a few thousand years of true crime adventures, serialized (more or less) in books.

Bad behavior and punishment are at the heart of the story of our faith. That bad behavior was (and still is in places) punished in theocracies for millennia, but our Western governments have taken over that role in the last several hundred years.

While the identity of the rule-maker, the judgment-giver and the punisher may have changed, the reasons behind why we punish have not changed, at least not that much.

Various cultures have given us four primary reasons for punishing and incarcerating criminals, like Johnny, even like Paul. They are deterrence, rehabilitation, retribution and incapacitation.

Deterrence means we are going to deter or to discourage Johnny and many more like him by incarcerating him, so much so that he will never again commit another crime because he fears imprisonment so much.

Rehabilitation means because Johnny committed a crime, his life must have been lacking in some way or ways, so we are going to fix his life by offering job training, education, therapies, programs and so on to him so he will live a productive life after being released.

Retribution means Johnny did something wrong enough to justify society (but not the victim) taking its revenge on him. Governmental vengeance is good. We call that justice. Private vengeance is bad. We call that vigilantism.

Incapacitation means Johnny did something wrong enough to justify society simply taking him off out of the free world to protect others from Johnny’s future bad acts, either for a length of time (like a 10-year sentence), for the rest of his natural life (like a life sentence) or for the rest of his shortened life (like a death sentence).

You won’t see them explicitly acknowledged, but you can see all of these reasons, imprinted like a watermark, behind every criminal statute on the books.

What I (and more importantly, many, many others) am proposing is that the criminal justice system has been missing the boat all along and that we should be focusing more on a fifth reason to punish, a reason that complements the other reasons, in other words, restoration. That’s both a secular and faith-based principle.

Restoration, when applied to criminal acts, isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s about getting to the heart of why Johnny did what he did, resetting his heart, instilling empathy, restoring the relationships that were broken by his actions, mending the damage he caused, satisfying the government’s interest in punishment, balancing the negative impact of incarceration and the positive impact of alternative sentencing, and doing the hard work that leads us to that word that we hate to talk about, forgiveness.

Too often, as a people of faith, we ignore those in prison. They are getting what they deserve. But we’re called to restore, every person, especially prisoners.

The writer of Hebrews 13:3 is clear: “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

We’re called to seek out the lost. We’re called to forgive. And we’ve conceded that role in criminal justice to politicians and bureaucrats, washing our hands of any responsibility.

I hope that you are intrigued enough by my answers to the “Why should we punish?” question to consider a faithful response to that question and to look at that issue through a new lens.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a new series titled “Behind the Bars,” to be published monthly, that will focus on criminal justice.

David Balkum

David Balkum is a lawyer, author, professor, husband, father, prison volunteer and member of Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin, Texas.