How Do Christians Think Biblically (and Economically) About Prison?
I have little experience with incarceration. I’ve never been in jail. Unless you count the one time I sat in a jail cell in Appomattox, Virginia listening to a historian discuss the Civil War. I was there of my own free will and I walked out as soon as the presentation was over.
For millions of Americans, though, prison is “home.” The number of Americans in prison continues to grow. The crimes for which prison is now a mandatory sentence also continues growing. Perhaps its time to have a conversation around the theological (and economic) implications of a growing prison population.
A recent article states that “1 in 4 Americans has a criminal record.” A full 25% of all Americans now has a criminal record. That statistic is hard to wrap my mind around. This means that when I look around my neighborhood and see 7 of my neighbors mowing their yard, washing their car, or walking their dog, at least 2 of them have a criminal record. This also means that when I look around my church on Sunday morning, a lot of people have a criminal record.
Ironically, crime and arrest rates are down from where they were in the 90’s, according to a White Paper at Prison Fellowship’s website. And yet, the number of crimes being punished with prison sentences is growing.
First, let’s be very clear that crimes demand punishment. When we look into the Old Testament we see God implement a justice system that punishes people for their crimes. We have all heard the familiar “eye for an eye” saying that comes from biblical principles. And we know that it was God’s idea to institute the death penalty for a capital crime. We see prisons in the Bible as well. Joseph ended up in an Egyptian prison, Daniel landed in a prison of sorts, and over in the New Testament John the Baptist and Paul both spent time in jail.
I see no evidence that a prison system is unbiblical. There’s no indication from Scripture that requiring prison as a form of punishment is wrong, morally or biblically. But it may be time to rethink the purpose of our prison system.
When we forget that people in prison for committing crimes are still people, it’s easy to justify 30 or 40 years in prison. When we forget that punishments are supposed to have a purpose, it’s easy to throw someone in prison for selling marijuana, stealing a bottle of alcohol, or not paying their taxes. When marijuana is legal in one state but not another, it adds a whole new level of intricacy to the equation.
The article I cited above makes this statement:
“Prosecutors now seek felony charges after an arrest much more frequently than they did even a decade ago. The effects of such broken justice? 2.7 million children have an incarcerated parent, including 1 in 9 African-American children. And an estimated 1 in 4 Americans has a criminal record which creates obstacles to finding housing, jobs, and other life necessities.”
Are we pushing for harsher punishments because we are more bad today than we were 10 years ago? Do we have more room in prisons? Have studies revealed that prison sentences for minor offenses helps to keep people from committing the same offense again? I don’t know, I can’t answer those questions. But if 1 out of 4 Americans now has a criminal record I would dare say we are doing something wrong.
I’ve often considered the economic implications of a growing prison population. Not just the taxes needed to sustain the prison system and people in prison, but the lost economic national revenue from people that are spending decades in a cage. It’s been shown that a growing work force is one of the drivers of an economy. As the work force grows and expands, production goes up, and economic growth tends to be the result. But if the work force shrinks production goes down. Combined with rising taxes this can lead to a dependence on imported goods, higher inflation, and a stagnant economy.
What if our efforts to punish people has led to slower economic growth as our work force shrinks and the number of people dependent on Social Security increases?
As Christians we must seek to think biblically about these issues. It’s not enough to regurgitate political talking points or party-line statements. Our concern should be a justice system that is fair to both the victims and the perpetrators of crime. And, above all else we should remember that all people, even those that commit crimes, are image-bearers of God.
We’re all fallen, sinful people in need of grace. Given the right circumstances there’s a good chance we would make a poor decision. Imagine being judged for the rest of your life based on that moment, that poor decision. With grace comes forgiveness. A justice system that respects people will seek to extend grace and forgiveness and create a system that allows people to move past their mistakes.
I’m not saying I have all the answers. I don’t. But we’re at a point where we need to start a conversation that will lead to change. Christians need to think biblically about these issues and be involved in these conversations.