The Latest Prison Reform is Not Real Prison Reform
The Senate passed prison reform. The bill had bipartisan support and the support of President Trump and was approved by the Senate in an 87-12 vote. It awaits a vote in the House. But it’s not real needed prison reform. First, it only affects the federal prison system. Second, it doesn’t change the system regarding property crimes.
Putting people in prison for property crimes is inhumane and unbiblical. Putting someone in prison for theft does not compensate the victim and forces law-abiding people to pay for the criminal’s incarceration.
The 13th Amendment abolished “slavery” and “involuntary servitude,” but it did not abolish “involuntary servitude … as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
No one could have guessed that mild-mannered Edward Mueller was a counterfeiter. But for ten years he eluded government authorities while he printed and spent fake $1 bills in his New York neighborhood. The funny thing is, Mueller was not very good at his craft. He used regular paper and spelled the name of the first president “Washsington.” Although a crook, Mueller was not greedy. He spent no more than two dollars in a day, never passed his bogus bucks to the same person twice and used the fraudulent currency only for the bare necessities of life. The grandfatherly Mueller eventually was caught and sentenced to a year and a day in prison and fined
The Bible outlines a way to deal with crimes like these: restitution. Restitution includes compensating a person for stolen or damaged property or physical harm done to someone. Restitution laws cover a variety of circumstances: assault (Ex. 21:18–19); bodily injury (21:26–27); liability (21:33–36); theft (22:1–4); property damage (22:5–6); irresponsibility (22:7–13); and the loss or damage of borrowed items (22:14–15). Voluntary restitution required the return of the item plus “one-fifth more” (Lev. 6:1–7). In most cases, double restitution is required (Ex. 22:4, 7–9). Some crimes required payment of four (22:1; 2 Sam. 12:6) or five (22:1) times the loss or injury. Multiple restitution was usually mandated for items that had extended value. Sheep reproduce at a high rate and their wool can be made into clothing. To steal a sheep is to rob its owner of the animal’s present and future productivity. An ox has similar value plus the added ability to pull plows and carts, essential functions in an agrarian society.
In all cases, laws of restitution placed a limit on revenge and a burden on the lawbreaker. Roger Campbell writes in his book Justice Through Restitution, that in each of the biblical cases, the “result was that the victim was restored to a better position than before his loss and the lawbreaker was punished by having to make right his wrongs in a manner that cost more than his potential gain.”
Many Christians believe that laws governing restitution are relics of Old Testament law that no longer apply. The New Testament tells a different story. Zaccheus promised to make four-fold restitution because of his abuse of power as a “chief tax-gatherer” and being an oppressor of the poor (Luke 19:8). While restitution did not save him, it was evidence that he had truly repented in the way he abused his power. For this Jesus could say, “Today salvation has come to this house” (19:9). The Apostle Paul instructs the thief to “steal no longer; but rather . . . to labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need” (Eph. 4:28). In Paul’s letter to Philemon,
Laws of restitution have been abandoned by the courts largely because crimes are perceived as ultimately directed at the State. Campbell points out that “As the power of government increased, crimes were considered not so much as injury to the victim but as violations of the king’s peace. Laws were enacted that made it a misdemeanor for a victim to settle with an offender without bringing him to court. Instead of restoring the injured party to his condition before being wronged, fines now went into the government coffers and the attention of society turned to ingenious punishments for lawbreakers.” Contrary to the humanistic theory of punishment, laws of restitution remind the criminal that he ultimately is responsible to God for his actions (Psalm 51:4), and his victims, created in God’s image, must be compensated in the manner prescribed by the “Judge of all the earth” (Gen. 18:25).
And where are policymakers on this issue? Charles Colson, president of Prison Fellowship, describes the time he addressed the Texas legislature and outlined the Bible’s view on how to deal with non-violent criminals.
I told them that the only answer to the crime problem is to take nonviolent criminals out of our prisons and make them pay back their victims with restitution. This is how we can solve the prison crowding problem.
The amazing thing was that afterwards they came up to me one after another and said things like, “That’s a tremendous idea. Why hasn’t anyone thought of that?” I had the privilege of saying to them, “Read Exodus 22.”
“It is only what God said to Moses on Mount Sinai thousands of years ago.”
A question, however, still remains: Should restitution be made for wrongs done hundreds of years ago? For example, should present-day Americans pay restitution for slavery? My grandparents immigrated to the United States at the turn of this century, long after chattel slavery was abolished. Where are their guilt and the guilt of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren? If biblical laws governing restitution teach us anything, they teach us that the guilty should pay and victims should be compensated by those who brought on the harm.