It’s Time to Reform Our Laws Regarding Property Theft

Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil only cheated “rascals.” Like George C. Scott’s character Mordecai Jones in the film The Flim-Flam Man, Weil maintained that “You can’t cheat an honest man.” One of his devilishly simple and effective cons was to bring a dog of questionable pedigree into a bar. He would then show the bartender a forged set of pedigree papers and ask him to care for the seemingly prized pooch while he ran an important errand. During Weil’s absence, an accomplice would enter the bar and offer to purchase the mutt for a substantial sum. When Weil returned, the bartender, hoping to make some fast money, offered to buy the dog for a few hundred dollars. Weil accepted, and the second man, of course, never returned.

Sixteen-year-old Stephen Dennison stole a five-dollar box of candy in 1925. As punishment, he was given a ten-year suspended sentence and required to report to a local minister once a month. When he failed to make his obligatory visits, young Stephen was sent to Elmira Reformatory in 1926 where he was confined for thirty-four years. It took his brother ten years to work for Stephen’s release. Stephen eventually sued the state and was awarded $115,000 for this miscarriage of justice. The presiding judge commented that “No sum of money would be adequate to compensate the claimant.”

No one could have guessed that mild-mannered Emerich Juettner, known under the alias 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 was eventually caught and sentenced to a year and a day in prison. He was also fined one non-counterfeit dollar.

The film Mister 880 (1950) was made about Mueller that starred Burt Lancaster, Dorothy McGuire, and Edmund Gwenn.

In each of the above cases, people were defrauded. The bartender was probably too embarrassed to report the incident to the police. Stephen Dennison received only token compensation for his extended incarceration. Mr. Mueller was punished, but his victims received no compensation. In fact, taxpayers had to foot the bill for the time he spent in jail and the costs associated with finding the dollar-bill counterfeiter.

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 outward evidence (fruit) 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, the apostle writes, “But if [Onesimus] has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account … I will repay” (v. 18). Philemon could have forgiven Onesimus, but one way or another the debt needed to be taken care of for the innocent party.

Laws of restitution have been abandoned by the courts largely because crimes are perceived as ultimately directed at the State. Campbell points out, “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? The late Charles Colson, former 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.”

Imprisonment is costly to taxpayers who have to pay for the incarceration and “rehabilitation” of criminals, dehumanizes people sent to prison for property crimes, and often denies victims their just compensation.

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