Thursday, June 26, 2014

Criminal Justice

I have mentioned before that the civil law has only limited ability to effect change. Martin Luther likened it to a muzzle on a wild beast. It cannot change the nature of the beast, but it keeps it from biting you. But we do need to inquire regarding the spirit with which the civil law should be enforced. There are those who favor strict enforcement and making sure every criminal is severely punished. There are others who seem opposed to punishing anyone, frequently based on the idea that none of us are really responsible for our actions but are slaves of our environment.  I am not convinced either of these represents a Christian point of view.

There is need for governments to enforce laws (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13,14; Deuteronomy 25:1). But God is a God of mercy and requires us to show mercy (James 2:13; 1 Timothy 1:16; 2 Samuel 14:14). Also, we must remember that we are ourselves sinners and should not look down on others (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9). Further, while no human court is perfect, we need to make every effort to avoid condemning the innocent (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15-19; Exodus 23:6). This can often be a difficult balance to reach, but we must make the effort.

There are some perspectives that can help us avoid the extremes. We need to start by believing people are responsible for their actions. As C. S. Lewis wrote, while it might seem to be more merciful to see people as not responsible for their actions, it ends up changing them from human beings to be held to account into mere cases to be worked on. And it can result in people being imprisoned until those in charge conclude they are cured. I am not against doing what can be done to rehabilitate prisoners and help them be integrated back into society. But we must remember that people have wills and cannot be forced to change against them. Even worse is seeing punishment only as deterrence. This can lead to making punishment extreme in order to deter. I do believe just punishment can serve a deterrent function. But seeing this as the only function leads to extreme overkill. The protection of society is also legitimate, in its context. But taking it as the sole purpose leads to the same extremes. If my only goal is protection of society, then why not leave people imprisoned for as long as possible to protect others from them? I am convinced the only appropriate basis for punishment is justice tempered by mercy. For if people do not deserve it, how go we justify punishing them at all? And if there is no idea of desert involved, what is to prevent the government from interfering with the life of any person at any time, even if they have done nothing to deserve it. 

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