You don’t have to live in California, or even America, to hear about the outcries and the tensions behind the incredible prison overcrowding in this state. It is one of the many problems (although the list of California’s major problems is probably long enough to be a substantially long novel in and of itself) this state and economy has been facing, with the mandate from the Federal Supreme court still demanding that the state must reduce its prison occupancy by about 7,000-10,000 inmates by the end of 2013.
While a five month window (rightly) has many policy makers focusing on how to resolve this tricky dilemma, this crisis causes one to wonder: is the problem the result of too much crime… or too much punishment?
While the Golden State itself has had plenty of criticism for its “Three Strikes” and other laws that many are trying to repeal, the matter of overcrowding, especially if many of these inmates are incarcerated for non-violent, and “non-serous crimes” as their liberators purport, causes one to ask:
“What is the purpose of punishment?”
The conversation on this topic in Christendom in the West has typically been steered by the likes of Aristotle and Anselm. For centuries, study and understanding of “justice” has been restricted to meaning punishment and recompense for evil deeds. Punishment is the practice of a contractual relationship between judge and subject.
But, does God not also have restoration as a purpose to his punishment? Is not the promise of catacalysmic judgment of wickedness and sin, and the re-creation of a new heaven and new earth, not all a part of a larger salvific plan to restore the world to a state free from sin as it once was? Certainly, many a martyr (certainly many a Jew and OT prophet) found extreme hope in knowing that punishment is the means by which new creation an occur.
But, perhaps judgment can bring about new creation upon its subject, and not just leave a new beginning in its wake. Certainly, if we think of judgment as discipline, we see how the example of the father punishing a son is a model of love and positive transformation (albeit through painful means).
Yet, perhaps we are too quick to put our conscience at peace to consider that punishment might be both retributive and restorative. Certainly, one cannot ignore the biblical data that calls for judgment upon the wicked, and recognizes that there is a righteousness with such a reaping. Yet, as Michael Bird helpfully reminds, God’s covenants with man are both relational and contractual.
Helpful, perhaps, for continuing the conversation in the theological realm, where we talk about God’s relationship and purposes with man. But, what is the interplay between God’s purposes in punishment, and how men and their governments are supposed to wield God’s instruction to govern righteously, without overstepping God’s position as the ultimate judge?
So then, contextualizing these thoughts into the problems that line our headlines today, what is the purpose of prison? To lock dangerous people away from potential victims? To create and experience of punishment intended to bring around restoration and rehabilitation? Or, is separation from society at large (or in the case of solitary confinement, separation from society-period) an appropriate biblical model of retributive punishment to match the severity of the crime committed?
Well, enough questions- how about some ideas. Not that this intends to be a 250 word answer to all of California’s overcrowding dilemmas, but perhaps it sparks ideas on how a retributive/ restorative theology of punishment can take some 21st century application.
With regards to “violent crimes,” for the protection of other innocent lives and in order to practice stewardship of the common peace, perhaps incarceration, and appropriate isolation, not only keeps the “problem away,” but it identifies the geography of restoration as the prison itself. It sees more than justifiable that necessary precautions of pirson guard self-protection be maintained, perhaps here, the pastor, the psychologist, the case worker, comes to bring the offer and the love that can change a heart directly and intentionally to him (or her).
With regards to many others (i.e. the proverbial “3 Strikes Victim” who’s third account was stealing a pair of gloves from Home Depot), perhaps punishment looks less like cleaning up the sides of California freeways (although I’m graeful for this service- Los Angeles looks dilapidated enough from the interstates even when they are regularly cleaned), and more like providing the work, the funds, the sacrifice, or other means of paying for and otherwise even improving whatever was damaged or destroyed in the wake of their crimes. Maybe instead of filing a bankruptcy for fraudulent business activity, the punishment is to adequately pay for 150% of what was destroyed, and to have the life that is rightly punished learns to drengs of what they have cost those they hurt. And for damages and debts that “one man could never repay,” perhaps it’s a lifetime of working to rectify this appropriately. Old dreams and old ambitions then become the sacrifice of lives constrained to justice’s demands.
Yet, with almost infinite permutations of sin an crime imaginable, I believe these ideas that many likely share will suffer greatly under the scrutiny or application towards many real life scenarios.
With that-where do you weight in?