Let Justice Roll Down: Reflections on the Reform of the Criminal Justice System
This essay is actually a letter, which I wrote response to the 1993 murder of 12 year old Polly Klass, here in Sonoma County, where I live. Besides generating shock and anguish across the nation, it prompted some much-needed deliberation on the reform of our state criminal justice system. These are my thoughts.
Reflections on the Reform of the Criminal Justice System
Like so many in the North Bay and across the nation, Christian citizens in Santa Rosa were deeply troubled by the recent kidnap-murder of Polly Klass. Tragic in itself, Polly’s death is all the more sobering because it somehow epitomizes a growing spiritual breakdown in our society. I have been heartened by the outpouring of love and community occasioned by this event. But if Polly’s death is at all to be redeemed, surely we must uncompromisingly search our ways, find out where we failed her, and take strong, swift action to make amends.
Though Polly’s death may be discussed at many levels, I am writing with regard to one of the main contributing causes: the failure of the criminal justice system in our state. And let it be said at the outset that I am writing, not in a critical spirit, but in a penitent one. For had we, as Christian citizens, been more willing to reflect on the evident shortcomings of the system, and to work towards its improvement, Polly might be alive today.
Permit me, then, to contribute a few thoughts to the present public debate on this subject. My hope is that they will help our leadedrs to formulate new policies that are just, merciful, and effective in promoting the well-being of all Californians.
How Have We Failed?
In recent weeks we have heard it said that “the system failed Polly.” This is all too true. But the underlying premise of our discussion seems to be that the primary purpose of “the system” is to promote public safety. Indeed, the prescriptions we now hear for fixing “the system” (such as various forms of the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law) clearly envision public safety as the sole end.
When we inquire, however, into the biblical view of criminal justice, we find an altogether different focus, one that does indeed tend to public safety, but one that does not idolize it. Put simply, the goal of criminal justice in the Bible is just that: justice. And justice has to do with the administration of law: not the arbitrary and ever changing laws of men, but the immutable laws of the living God.
Here, in my opinion, is the root cause of our present troubles: the widespread loss, at all levels of our culture, of the theological rationale for law and justice. To state my case bluntly, we have publicly and institutionally turned our back on God, his Law, and his idea of criminal justice. The bitter results are all too clear.
Let us be more specific.
The rejection of biblical justice means:
1) We no longer view the State as a “minister of God” (Romans 13:1f); as an institution authorized by God and accountable to him to teach and administer his laws for the honor of his name and the good of the people.
2) We no longer turn to the Bible, the cornerstone of Western and American civilization, for wisdom in determining sound principles of law and justice.
3) As a result, we no longer experience the intellectual confidence and strength of character that are necessary to administer justice wisely and effectively.
In place of these principles–principles that guided America to her greatness–what have we chosen for ourselves? I would answer by saying that we are choosing an increasingly godless, humanistic system, based on a dangerously naive understanding of human nature. It is an ever-changing, crudely pragmatic system that is without moral absolutes. As a result, it is misguided as to its mission, cynical in its outworkings (e.g., plea bargaining), ineffective (e.g., high levels of recidivism), unfair (especially to victims), unmerciful (to criminals themselves), and crushingly expensive!
And yet, for all this, the passion for justice still burns in human hearts, and all the more so now that Polly is gone.
Biblical Guideliness for the Administration of Justice
In that spirit, let me therefore offer several suggestions based on the foundational principles of biblical criminal justice, principles that I believe could help our leaders formulate effective public policy for the state of California.
First, as mentioned above, we need to recover the proper focus for the system. The focus–the central goal–is the administration of God’s laws in society. This is true justice, justice that satisfies both God and man, and that also has the intended side-effect of educating the people and deterring crime.
Secondly, we must refamiliarize ourselves with Old Testament law and try, under the guidance of the New Testament and the Spirit of God, to glean from it abiding standards of law and justice by which to govern civil society.
Frankly, this is not always easy, since the coming of Christ entailed the abrogation or transformation of many Old Testament laws. Nevertheless, the New Testament is emphatic that the State must seek to administer God’s righteous standards in society (Romans 13:1f), and that God makes these standards known both in human hearts and the precepts of the ancient Israelite constitution (1 Timothy 1:8-11). The framers of the English common law that, until recently, has guided our nation searched the Scriptures. We would do well to do the same.
Thirdly, in administering justice, we should turn to biblical punishments. Basically, they are three.
1) Capital punishment. Captial punishment is learly sanctioned in both Old and New Testaments (Genesis 9:6, Acts 25:11), certainly for murder, and in all probability for a number of other crimes which threaten the very life of the community (e.g., kidnapping, rape, adultery, incest, homosexual practice, and bestiality). If it could somehow be shown that the New Testament removes any of these crimes from the list of capital offenses, the fact would remain that the Old Testament views them with great seriousness and as a profound threat to the well-being of our community. Strict punishments, whatever they might be, are certainly called for.
2) Retaliation in kind. Besides capital punishment, the Bible also teaches retaliation in kind. It articulates this principle by enjoining, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24-5, Leviticus 24:19-20). While Christ forbids retaliation in kind as a principle of private reaction to our enemies (Mt. 5:38f), he does not abolish it as a principle of justice in the hands of the State (Romans 13:4). In this vein, the Scriptures also endorse public corporal punishment for certain offenses (Deuteronomy 25:2f).
3) Restitution. Finally, the Bible places a heavy emphasis on restitution or compensation, usually in the cases of theft, negligence, or intentional damage to property (Exodus 22:14-15). Work programs designed to help criminals acquire a skill, earn money, and pay back their victims would reflect this principle well.
It is quite noteworthy that the Bible never commends imprisonment as a method of punishment. This is in stark contrast to our present system which largely bypasses the three methods listed above in favor of incarceration. Though imprisonment, in certain cases, may be a sad necessity, the Bible is clear that a criminal justice system poised exclusively on this one pillar will be relatively ineffective, unjust, and unmerciful.
Old Testament law itself demanded that the administration of these three penalties be administered with great care. For example, punishments were to fit the crime; they were to be implemented only after a fair trial, usually involving witnesses; they were to be adminstered swiftly (Ecclesiastes 8:11) and, as a rule, in public, so that the people–especially young people–would learn to fear the consequences of sin; and they were to be tempered by the wisdom and mercy of judges.
The fruit of this system–when faithfully implemented–was good. God was honored, justice was served, the people were protected, and criminals restrained (and, in most cases, enabled to put the past cleanly behind them so as to enjoy a fresh start in life).
I have written this short essay in response to the death of Polly Klaas, and to the disturbing increase of such incidents in our community. I have focused on one aspect of the problem, an aspect that our political leaders must deal with: the criminal justice system. And I have argued frankly the State should restrain such evil biblically, by seeking to administer God’s laws justly, swiftly and mercifully.
For this reason, I question the wisdom of turning to various forms of “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law. Better, I think, to embark upon a more biblical path, a path leading to a balanced use of capital punishment, corporal punishment, restitution, and, as necessary, imprisonment. I think the public would concur.
In closing, I must not fail to state a simple truth that folks on all sides of this debate understand quite well. No criminal justice system, even the very best, can “rehabilitate” a man. It may be able to restrain him, but it can never change his heart. That is the work of God alone, who, according to my conviction, accomplishes such change through loving people who pray, preach the Gospel, and reach out to serve both criminals and their victims.
May God help us all–each in our own sphere and with our own tools–to reform the criminal jusitice system in our land. May we do it for the honor of his name, and in memory of Polly Klass.