“Punishing Criminals”

The original idea of incarcerating criminals where solitary confinement and enforced silence would make them “penitent” for their crimes was not successful.  Separation and solitude with enforced silence were living conditions more likely to produce mental illness.  The growing prison populations furthermore made separation and solitary confinement impossible.

The history of prisons in America is characterized by disagreement on their goals and objectives and the best means of achieving them.  Is prison simply for physical restraint and incapacitation?  Or for reform?  Or for rehabilitation and correction?

As recently as four decades ago most state and federal prisons featured rehabilitation programs aimed at alcohol and drug treatment, job training and vocational rehabilitation, with on-site prison industries ranging from furniture-making for state offices, to military equipment such as fiberglass and Kevlar helmets.  The programs reduced the cost of prisons while training residents for skilled jobs after release.

Many of these programs remain but are being cut back, and only a small proportion of the prison populations have access to educational and rehabilitation programs.  Many legislators are reluctant to offer such programs for convicted felons, when law-abiding tax-payers have to pay for the same programs.  Understandable—but the trade-off is prisoners released without marketable skills, increasing the chances of a return to crime.


“Rehabilitation” is no longer considered a primary purpose of prison.  Despite the title of “Correctional Facilities” most prisons show little success in correcting prisoners.  This is not because prison administrators, program staff, or correctional officers are failing to do their jobs.  The very concept of incarceration is one of working against the odds.  “Let’s put all the worst felons in the state in the same place—and they’ll get better, right?!

We, the American citizens, demand that the federal and state prison systems take care of the crime problem; and keep those convicted felons “out of sight, out of mind.”  A Columbia University Professor of Law has written an incisive and critical analysis of American prisons.

   “Our penitentiaries and houses of correction are holding pens. They do not lead … to penitence or correction. Prisons today are about more crime…. (and) does not matter whether the incarcerated person manages to make a successful adjustment to life there or not.” (p. 169).

“The US spends well over $80 billion annually on prison costs…. The burgeoning punishment regime is thus a paradoxical entity.  …the only industry in the US that thrives on poorer and poorer performance” (p. 214). –Robert A. Ferguson, Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

A logical question is whether Americans are more punitive than people of other nations.  And if we are more punitive, why?


Criminology-Theology Connection

“There is something in … American culture, that is driving us toward harsh punishment. …. It is clear…that American harshness has something to do with the strength of its religious tradition, and especially its Christian tradition.  Part of what makes us harsher than continental Europeans is the presence of some distinctively fierce American Christian beliefs.” –James Q. Whitman, Harsh Justice: Criminal Punishment and the Widening Divide between America and Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 6.

Many strongly-held beliefs and practices have been supported by Americans’ reading and interpretation of the Bible.  The practice of slavery and subordination of women, denial of voting rights and other equal opportunities come to mind.  Harsh criminal punishment has been justified based on an Old Testament concept called the “lex talionis.”

“If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth…” (Exodus 21:23-25).

A correct interpretation of this concept (which occurs only three times in the Old Testament) based on a correct translation of the original Hebrew in which it was written and its historical context does not support harsh punishment.


The “lex talionis” or “law of retaliation” refers instead to punishment that is proportionate to the seriousness of the crime committed.  Quite apart from “harsh punishment,” the principle as defined in Leviticus in fact calls for restitution or compensation rather than retribution for killing an animal (Lev. 24:18).

In the New Testament, Christ specifically rejects it.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer…” (Matt. 5:38).  Contrary to justification for retributive justice, “an eye for an eye” was a law of equality and proportion under the law, declaring all should be treated alike and revenge must be limited. We do well to remember that Christ did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it—to give it more meaning and context.  God’s justice is never focused solely on condemnation or punishment.

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