The Prison Problem
Almost everyone can agree that America’s prison system is a mess. Jails have been overcrowded for years, and numbers continue to increase with seemingly no solution. Every crime from theft to murder generally is punished with some form of jail-time, so it’s no surprise that jails are filling faster and faster in an increasingly lawless society. This, therefore, increases the costs of keeping these prisoners fed, housed, and clothed; the burden of which falls to the taxpayer. Throw in additional “perks” that are now being given to these prisoners, such as college educations and better living/housing conditions, and the costs skyrocket. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with having someone being educated or living well, but the system as a whole is backwards, and getting worse. The primary problem isn’t that taxpayers are paying for all of these additions, such as college or libraries. The problem isn’t even that there is less and less incentive to leave the prison systems, or that there is really no good path to “re-entering” the world as a productive member of society. The problem is that there is a prison system at all. I know, it sounds crazy to not have prisons. It has become such a large part of our society (or not our society) that there couldn’t possibly be another answer, right? Interestingly, when we look at the Old Testament penal system, there were no jails to be spoken of at all. Everything needed for execution of punishment for breaking laws was contained in the Law itself. Contrary to what many people believe, the Old Testament Law was not like the other systems of Law of that era. When you ask someone what would happen if someone was caught stealing in ancient Israel, the response would most likely be “they would have their hands cut off” or something just as severe. But in fact, the social laws in Israel were much more fair. For instance, according to Old Testament Law, if someone was caught stealing something, there were only a few prescribed punishments, differing based on circumstance. Exodus 22:1 says “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” The idea here is that that man guilty of theft will lose more than the amount he stole, but after he has paid for his crime, there is no more to be said; the man is free. There is no loss of limb to be found, and moreover, there is no locking away of the man. Whereas now, there might be a 2 year jail sentence for such a crime, the Old Testament punishment is quick and final, requiring nothing long-term. The man is never removed from society or subject to the need for “re-introduction” or “rehabilitation”. The man learns from his crime immediately. What about a more serious crime, such as murder? We know that in our country, most of the time there is some sort of jail sentence, ranging from just a few years to multiple “life sentences”. This depends on the “severity” of the murder. Some states enforce some form of death penalty for the most egregious murders, however this punishment seems to be few and far between. The Old Testament gives a higher regard for the lives of the innocent. If any person kills another for any reason other than the death being completely accidental, they are to be put to death themselves. That’s it. There’s no moving needle of morality that changes based on social status or the severity of the murder. The innocent is avenged, and the murderer pays the ultimate price for their crime. There is no long drawn out punishment that involves locking that person away with other criminals, needing to be fed and housed for the rest of their lives. The severity of the crime is recognized and the punishment is dealt in kind. Eye for eye, life for life. The point of all of this is that there was no need for a prison system according to the Law of God that He put in place for His people. Punishment is immediate and appropriate to the crime, and any law breaker would know exactly what they could expect if they got caught. As it stands, a jail sentence might not seem like such a bad thing, especially with all of the benefits that come along with it. Some people might even get more out of a jail sentence than if they had to work for a living. On top of it, there is less and less chance that someone could actually get out of the system and re-enter society the longer they are locked up. The whole system is set up for failure, and someone still has to pay for it all. Interestingly, lots of people have this kind of mentality on discipline from a very young age, so it never occurs to anyone that there might be another way. In the next post, we’ll look at one of the main ways that we as Americans treat our children like we treat our criminals: the time-out.