Crime & Punishment In America: Maybe We’re Doing It Wrong?

Crime & Punishment In America: Maybe We’re Doing It Wrong? December 2, 2014

Vector illustration of a man lock up in prison

10.2 million people sit in prison cells today around the world– and almost half of them are right here, in the United States. While in the US we like to boast about being “#1” we forget that we’re actually #1 at a lot of things that we probably shouldn’t be proud of– and having the highest incarceration rate in the world is one of them.

And, it’s not just our incarceration numbers that should be a shock to our system, but the recidivism rate that we should find most concerning. In a study from 2005-2010, researchers found that 3 out of 4 former prisoners are re-arrested within 5 years after being released from prison.

Simply put, the way we approach crime and punishment doesn’t work.

I remember back to my days listening to talk radio and the initial chatter of prison overcrowding once we started to realize that our prisons were beginning to bulge at the seams. I distinctly remember the solution one commentator had: build more prisons.

Unfortunately, the approach of building more prisons and punishing more harshly (aka, mandatory sentencing, three strikes laws, the war on drugs) hasn’t worked and has only led to more of the same. In fact, some of our harsh approach to crime and punishment has actually led to more crime as nonviolent offenders (such as folks going to jail for marijuana offenses), come out on the other side of prison more “hardened” than they were to begin with. Throw into the mix the huge vocational barriers someone with a criminal record faces, and our situation is ripe for failure– one that actively produces more crime and brokenness, not less.

Actually, it’s beyond ripe for failure– it has failed. Past tense.

The traditional American approach to crime and punishment doesn’t work.

This past week I’ve been reading a great new book by Derek Flood called Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and really connected with his thoughts in a section called A Practical Guide To Enemy-Love. In regards to our failed approach to crime and punishment he writes:

We commonly think of justice in terms of retribution. When we speak of a person “getting justice ” we mean getting punishment. Love of enemies challenges this understanding of justice and asks: what if justice was not about punishing and hurting, but about mending and making things right again? What if justice was not about deterring through negative consequences, but about doing something good in order to reverse those hurtful dynamics? What if real justice was about repairing broken lives?”

I’ve certainly spoken of this difference between restorative justice and punitive justice both here on the blog and in my book, Undiluted, but Flood brings up some really good additional thoughts on the matter. He goes on to say:

“The sad fact is that our current prison system has become a factory for hardening criminals rather than healing them. Instead of learning empathy and how to manage their impulses and emotions, the brutal culture of prison life teaches inmates that one must be brutally violent in order to survive. Because of these patterns learned in prison, the alarming repeat offense rate is sadly not all that surprising. Locking someone up in the hell of prison life naturally breeds violence, not reform repentance. People do not learn empathy by being shamed and dehumanized. Retribution gains popular support by appealing to our most primitive impulses, but in the end results in a broken system that perpetuates hurt instead and cycles of violence.”

In the book, Flood cites a successful program that clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of a restorative justice approach over a punitive approach: the RSVP program run by the San Francisco’s Sheriff’s Department. In this alternative program, they took some of their most violent offenders and tried a restorative approach instead of just locking them up and throwing away the key. This program that taught them communal living, personal dignity, development of empathy for others, and how to manage their own emotions, had some results many might find surprising: an 80% reduction in violent recidivism, and the total elimination of assault on prison officials (pg. 185).

The effectiveness of restorative justice compared to punitive justice is simply amazing. But, that really shouldn’t be a shock to us. Why wouldn’t restoring a life work better than simply subjecting it to punishment?

The American approach to crime and punishment needs some re-framing because the old way simply doesn’t work. A punitive focused approach results in over populated prisons filled to the brim– both with some folks who justly should be there, and some who probably should not. All however, are forced to acclimate to a violent prison life that simply turns them into “hardened criminals” even if they didn’t arrive as one. When they are released, they face so many barriers to reintegration into society that the violent survival mechanisms the prison system taught them quickly become one of their only tools to move forward in life.

We cannot continue a system with this philosophical approach and think that we’re actually doing justice– we’re not. Justice, as I write in Undiluted, is about “making the world a little less broken and a little more right,” and as Flood points out in Disarming Scripture, our current system does anything but that.

The solution?

We must become people who long to see a life restored instead of a life destroyed, and we must become willing to do whatever it takes to make the former happen, while resisting the easier path of doing the latter. Together, we can begin to influence culture in such a way that we reform our penal system to become something that sees justice as a life restored instead of punishment given.

*In the meantime, if you’re interested in reading a book on the topic of violence in the Bible that is exegetically sound but not written in the confrontational tone most writings on violence seem to emit (including my own), I highly recommend checking out Disarming Scripture.

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