Consequences for Crime

I was asked what I think about capital punishment a few months ago and immediately responded by dropping to a very abstract level of thought, responding that one’s view of capital punishment depends on one’s philosophy of criminal justice in the first place; what is the reason we do anything about crimes?

I think this is important to understand for two reasons. One is that it takes controversial topics such as the death penalty out of the realm of emotion and makes it so we can have actual, rational discussion with people about the issue. The other is that the philosophy of criminal justice is important for all citizens to give good thought to because when ultimate power rests with the people, ultimate responsibility for the actions of the State also rests with the people. Each time someone is executed in the state you are a citizen of, you are responsible. You should probably give that responsibility some thought.

Given the above, here are a few reasons to have consequences for crime. I don’t think they are all of them. Yeah, I made some of the words up (English is a great language).

Punitive: The criminal did something bad and so must be punished. Something unpleasant must happen to them, simply because that is justice. Corporal and capital punishment fit nicely into this. Cable TV in prison doesn’t.

Restorative: If something bad happens to criminals, they will have “paid their debt to society” and so society can welcome them back without holding a grudge. Capital punishment doesn’t fit so well into this one, and neither do life imprisonments. Long imprisonments are also frowned on.

Atone-ative: The criminal hurt someone, so the criminal should fix whatever was hurt. Prison doesn’t fit into this at all. Returning stolen property, repairing damaged property, and removing graffiti all fit nicely into this.

Preventative: If something bad happens to people who do bad things, other people will think twice before doing bad things. Public punishments fit this the best. Stocks, public floggings, public hangings and burning at the stake. Crucifixion is the classic example. Disappearing people can work too.

Redemptive: If something bad happens to someone who did something bad, they don’t have to feel guilty about it anymore, knowing they were punished for it. Something visceral, like corporal punishment, or material, like a fine, probably fit this the best.

Protective: If we separate bad people from the rest of society, they can’t hurt society anymore. Life imprisonment and the death penalty fit this the best. Laws about sex offenders and where they can live and how they have to make their presence known also fall into this category.

Remedial: If we help criminals become better people, they won’t do bad things again. Pretty much anything that lets a criminal go free at the end of the sentence fits this- in theory. In reality, a lot of what is ostensibly designed to remediate prisoners actually institutionalizes them and confirms them into a patten of recidivism.

Surely, there are more reasons. Can you think of any more? What assumptions about crime and human nature would be attracted more by some of these and repulsed by others? After thinking about criminal justice this way, should we re-evaluate the (pretty limited) set of consequences for crime that we currently utilize? Specifically, should we stop imprisoning so many people?

    • Stephen Hale
    • March 6th, 2011

    OK, Staples. I’ll bite. 🙂

    There are a lot of different ideas in Christianity that all impact our views on the issues you’ve brought up. However, you asked “what assumptions about crime and human nature would be attracted more by some of these and repulsed by others?” So I’m going to try and compare the idea of the value of the individual (to use modern language) or imago dei (to use more biblical language) to your categories. I’ll point out before I start that this question needs to be asked about the criminal, not the victim. The victim’s humanity and imago dei is respected in the fact of punishment, assuming the punishment is vaguely appropriate. Well…I guess I’d better ask in each category how well it would do in respecting the victim too, then….

    Punitive: This isn’t necessarily opposed to the image of god in the criminal, and seems quite compatible for the victim as well. Probably depends on the details of the situation here.

    Restorative: This is a LOVELY view from the point of view of the imago dei in the criminal, and also respects the dignity of the criminal.

    Atone-ative: Works well for the criminal, and probably well for the victim, especially if we’re talking about property crimes. Less useful for crimes against a person, such as rape or murder.

    Preventative: Uhm…this seems pretty disrespectful to the imago dei of the criminal. Further, it turns the victim into a sort of oppressor, I think, which disrespects the imago dei of the victim as well. This is no good.

    Redemptive: Good for both.

    Protective:…I’m torn about this one. It is good for protecting the POTENTIAL victims, respecting the image of God in them. However, it doesn’t do much for the criminal, I have to say. I think it’s probably neutral (as in: perfectly fine) for the original victim…

    Remedial: Certainly respects the image of God in the criminal. I think this, assuming it is combined with an actual punishment, such as imprisonment, is also compatible with the image of God in the victim.

    Ok, there’s a start!


    • Staples
    • March 8th, 2011

    Thanks for biting!

    So, after evaluating these underlying philosophies of criminal justice by the standard of the value of the individual/Imago Dei, how do you think the current justice system in the US holds up to the some evaluation? What, if anything, would you change?

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