We have lived for so long in a society that calls being locked in a cage for a period of time “justice” that it would be rocket science for many to think of any another form of punishment. Sadly, many will protest—“No justice, No peace”—when a crime is committed, yet the same people will cry for imprisoning people as “justice.” But what if this demand of the people is itself an even greater injustice?
When a criminal, such as a murderer, is served with a lengthy amount of time in prison, many people proclaim with excitement “Justice served!” If that same murderer was given a short sentence, the same people would say the judge has failed to bring justice. People will differ, however, on the amount of time they believe this murderer should get. The number of years that people decide atones for the crime is thus clearly based on a subjective foundation.
The punishment for crime in our country rarely if ever directly benefits the victim involved, or is proportional to the crime. If a thief steals from someone, the property may be returned—if the thief has not already pawned it and used the money. Restitution in any form is not necessarily guaranteed for the victim. With a prison sentence, however, the criminal is now adopted into a system which brings him into legal slavery, loss of freedom, a hostile environment, and which only returns him to a society which rejects him once released.
The U.S. has the highest prison population in the world. We make up less than five percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of its prison population. This is, in part, because the prison system has turned into an industry. Money and not justice is the motivation.
Although involuntary slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to our Constitution, there was an exception. The exception for slavery was punishment for crime.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
This allows for legal slavery. Although in a few cases (which I’ll mention in a minute) this is not necessarily wrong, our justice system has corrupted it and greatly abused it. In many prisons, private and public, prisoners are forced to perform free labor for corporations. In some, prisoners are paid about twenty cents an hour. This is where so-called capitalism goes wrong. Instead of companies outsourcing work to sweat shops in foreign countries, major companies you probably shop with simply outsource their work to prisoners at even more greatly reduced prices.
Prison can be not only an exploitative racket, but as long as beds are filled, our tax dollars are funding what could be seen as a form of legal human trafficking. In order to keep beds filled, wicked corporations who own prisons lobby politicians with hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. This results in many laws being pushed in certain states due to the influence of prison owners who need to keep certain laws, or to encourage even tougher laws, in order to keep those lucrative beds filled. Many of the candidates you vote for are controlled by the pockets of prison owners. The War on Drugs has resulted in mass incarceration, often specifically targeting African Americans. According to most recent statistics in 2014, 50 percent of inmates in federal prison, and 53 percent in state prisons, are in for drug offenses. In some cases, judges are required to assign mandatory prison sentences. In other cases, they have been caught with a corrupt agreement to convict as many as possible. In at least one case, a judge has been convicted of being paid millions for “selling” juveniles to prisons. That should tell us a lot about our current “justice system.”
On top of this, in many prisons, you will find living conditions that spit in the face of those who are made in the image of God. Even though many inmates have truly committed crimes, there is still a level of grace that should be extended in regard to how they are to be treated. There are many in prison, however, who were falsely accused or who were imprisoned for breaking laws that should not even exist. Both groups include people torn away from their families in order to live in the filth of rats, drug-infested environments, sexual abuse from other prisoners and guards, and to defend themselves in a culture of violence while unable to obtain a life insurance policy.
And yet, in the face of all of this, the ultimate goal is not to reform the system. Why not? Because the biblical solution is something much better.
This discussion will not be as extensive as I plan to do so in a later book. Neither is this meant to give an answer to every question dealing with changing the system. This will, however, provide a foundation. Imprisonment is not new. Many societies, including ancient Israel, historically only used prisons in different ways: for example, while holding while the offender awaiting trial, or for punishment (ancient Israel was not to do the latter). That is not to say that all imprisonment in historic societies was done in a just way.
In the modern era, thinkers who believed that punishments such as death were too harsh turned to incarceration as an alternative. Ironically, the punishment substituted is actually the harsher punishment, being a lifelong torture. Instead we should see the Civil Law in the Bible as a blueprint for us. God’s design is perfect and his corrective action is effective. The penalties for crimes under the Mosaic Law were never imprisonment, but all were directly connected to the particular crime. If someone stole, they were to pay back the victim in full plus some (Ex. 22:1, 2 Sam. 12:6, Luke 19:8). If they could not pay back the victim, they were to serve in indentured servitude until they paid off their debt. This allowed them to remain in society and most likely to live with a family who could pour into them and launch them off on their own without a record that hindered them from contributing to society. If someone committed a violent crime—such as murder, rape, or—the punishment was death (Deut. 22:5, Ex 21:12–14). Imagine the restraint of evil in a society with punishments like these.
Prisons do not correct, nor do they rehabilitate men and women to be effective and productive members of society. We must first look to the Gospel, and see that God is a just God that he would not allow sin to go unpunished. In order for his wrath to be satisfied, our punishment was put on Jesus. We are freed from the penalty of sin, not because God just arbitrarily forgives, or because he puts us in time out or purgatory, but because he dealt with our crime on the cross. Therefore, in light of the Gospel, we also should be concerned with justice. This does not mean that mercy can never extended by a victim, but that we must look to the law of God to see what is righteous punishment rather than create our own subjective standards. We know sin will ultimately be dealt with on judgment day, but God’s servants must administer the proper temporary justice while here on earth as well. The only need for prisons should be for holding if necessary for trial or punishment. There is no need for prison reform, therefore, because it should be abolished in order to usher in true justice.
Trevaris J. Tutt is the Pastor/Church Planter of Truth and Grace Bible Church in the inner city of Jacksonville, Florida. He is married with four children: two boys and two girls. He is an entrepreneur and is currently working on writing books to educate and edify the body of Christ on doctrine, apologetics, history, and biblical worldview.