As we can act for justice in seeking to promote God’s kingdom on earth, we can look for opportunities to restore convicted offenders to rightful place in society.
Justice and Mercy
Both the scriptures and secular criminal justice systems specify codes of conduct with punishment. The scriptures also temper justice with mercy. Public prisons are sometimes called reformatories and correctional institutions. In this manner they combine retributive and restorative justice. To this pair we should add a third approach: prevention to eliminate social conditions that breed crime.
In the United States today, and perhaps elsewhere, retribution outweighs restoration. Prisons are overcrowded, and often harsh treatment occurs. Laws criminalize behavior, such as drunkenness, drug usage, gambling and vagrancy when it harms only the individual and sends too many persons to prison. Some penal laws are discriminatory, such as higher penalties for the use of crack cocaine (most often used by blacks) compared to powder cocaine (preferred by whites). Most of all, high rates of recidivism indicate failure of rehabilitation programs.
That is not to deny that incarceration may sometimes be necessary, at least for a period in cases of violent persons who may harm others again. Moreover, the threat of imprisonment may deter persons from committing crimes against property (such as robbery, embezzlement, forgery, vandalism, arson) and crimes that result in physical or mental harm to another person (such as murder, assault, kidnapping, rape, harassment, terrorism). But the death penalty should be abolished because the state shouldn’t kill, and no person is beyond the possibility of redemption.
But beyond punishment the goal of incarceration should be rehabilitation and restoration of individuals to positive roles in society. This means fair treatment in prison. There can be counseling to promote healing and guidance for turning prisoners’ lives around. Recognizing that many offenders come from backgrounds where they are poorly educated and lack skills needed in the job market, the time of imprisonment can provide opportunity for basic education, job training, and other preparation for release.
Individuals can contribute to this process by visiting persons in prison, as Jesus recommended (Matthew 25:36b). Congregations can have prison ministries for this purpose, carried out with loving kindness and humility.
Restorative justice understands that victims should be brought into the process. Typically in criminal justice it is the state versus the offender with the victim on the sideline. Restorative justice helps the offender recognize that he or she has harmed someone physically or psychologically and needs to seek reconciliation, restitution, and forgiveness. In such cases a skilled mediator brings offender and victim together to facilitate this process and promote healing. It provides an opportunity for the victim to offer forgiveness and the offender to take responsibility for misconduct and to express regret.
This process needs to continue into the community where church groups and other organizations can support released offenders as they reenter public life.
In addition, prevention should be an essential part of the criminal justice framework. There are a variety of concerns to deal with.
- Efforts should be undertaken to eliminate social conditions, such as poverty, racial and ethnic discrimination, and economic exploitation that are underlying causes of crime.
- Domestic violence can be addressed through counseling, mediation, and crisis intervention.
- Violence between youth gangs can be approached through a variety of preventive activities and conflict resolution initiatives.
- The excessive supply of guns in the United State, especially assault weapons, deserves attention.
- Prison reform emphasizing restoration can reduce the role of prisons as a breeding ground for future crimes.
- Reduction of crimes against property can occur by instilling values of basic honesty and countering excessive love of money.