Sunday, April 24, 2005

Time to Chart a New Criminal Justice Course

According to a report released by the U.S. government today, the nation's prisons and jails now hold 2.1 million people: 1 in every 138 people in this country. The government also reported that the prison population is growing by over 900 persons every week. The AP reports that the United States already imprisons more people per capita than any country on earth. And, of course, the United States is the only developed country other than Japan with capital punishment. (And it executes six times as many people per capita as Japan.)

These statistics may come as a shock to many. It is indeed shocking to learn that our nation has one of the most severe criminal justice systems in the world. Shouldn't this be morally arresting to those of us who count ourselves as Christian?

The essence of the Social Gospel is the belief that Jesus' ethic of agape -- of unconditional, active, self-effacing love -- applies not just to our private lives, but to our social structures as well. Adherants to the Social Gospel acknowledge that agape is important in our day-to-day lives but believe that mainline Protestants have wrongly deemphasized agape's role in Christian politics.

It seems clear to me that the United States' criminal justice system does not reflect agape. A system that destroys so many lives and that directly takes so many others reflects retribution (or, less euphemistically, vengeance). The problem with our criminal justice system is not that capital punishment is unjustifiably expensive (which it is) or that three-strikes and determinate sentencing laws are inefficient deterrence mechanisms (which they are). The problem is that our entire penalogical paradigm is simply and profoundly immoral.

The President talks of overhauling the tax system, of overhauling social security. If this new interest in Christian politics is indeed more than skin deep, then we must overhaul our criminal justice system. We must chart an entirely new course. It is time to critically consider what a criminal justice system -- niether based on "efficient deterrence" nor on retribution -- but on agape would look like.

First, how might agape frame our social response to criminals? A criminal system based upon agape-love would not require that anyone feel affection, passion or any other such emotion for those who commit acts of violence or otherwise contravene our society's most fundamental rules. Agape is more active than emotive. We may be justifiably outraged at criminal conduct. But if we are to agape criminals (and Jesus tells us that we are to agape everyone, including our enemies and the least), then we must not act out in vengeance. Vengeance is, in truth, the polar opposite of agape. And if our criminal system is to agape criminals, then it too must not act out of vengeance. In other words, retribution is out.

But this does not mean that all coercion is out. It just means that the coercion is for a different purpose. If our criminal justice system were to agape criminals, then it would begin with different questions. It would ask, "what is wrong with this person?" and "how can we help?" In other words, if we are to socially give of ourselves in the criminal justice context, then we must not only forsake social vengeance, we must also commit our tax dollars to rehabilitation: to long-term substance abuse treatment programs, intensive psychological counseling, and serious vocational training.

Second, how might agape frame our social response to victims? Agape, in all of its beautiful difficulty, requires that we deny victims' seemingly righteous demands for social vengeance, retribution, or -- as the same thing is often called in popular culture -- "justice." If vengeance is justice, then agape requires that we redefine justice in the criminal context. We should give victims true justice by helping them heal. We acknowledge that they have been wronged and, again, we must give of ourselves in terms of tax dollars to support medical, psychological and financial welfare programs that try -- however modestly -- to make victims and their families whole again.

It is easy to object that many victims and families can never really be made whole again. This is too true, but it proves too much. As many victims have discovered, seeing their violators punished not only fails to make them whole, it fails to help at all. Social programs specifically designed to help victims heal -- while they cannot reverse an assault, rape or murder -- can have a true, deep, positive impact.

In short, an agape-centered criminal justice system would seek to heal both criminal and victim. Our current criminal justice system fails to do either.


At 11:24 PM, Anonymous donzelion said...

Punishment in general is hard to square with agape.

Rather than attempt to do so, I'd take a different tact that leads to the same conclusion.

When called upon to do "justice," since we lack the wisdom of Solomon (or other means of cheating on the evidence), we dish out legal judgments and leave "real justice" to God.

Legal systems strive to employ reason rather than faith (or emotion) as a means of judgment.

What is the reasonable defense of capital punishment? The "killer pollutes the air" argument? Somewhat lacking in the reason department.

Reason and love lead directly to the same conclusion: that criminal justice system which focuses on punishment for the sake of vengeance is WRONG both because it rejects the new commandment of Christian faith, and because it rejects human reason.

At 3:55 PM, Blogger Infission said...

I agree completely. Retribution is inefficient and, in that sense, illogical.

But I think it is necessary to say, as you do, that vengeance is wrong for BOTH reasons -- for reasons of faith/morality and for reasons of inefficiency. The Left has been too reluctant to discuss the former.


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