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Christianity and Prison Reform

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So the criminal justice/prison reform bill passed the Senate yesterday and now it moves on to the House.  It looks like it’ll sail in the House and will mark a significant accomplishment for a lame duck congress.  As the debate progresses, a commentary piece has appeared at RealClear Politics by Bruce DuMont entitled “The Christian Case for Criminal Justice Reform.”  The argument of the piece is extraordinarily simplistic:

Since the essence of Christianity is forgiveness, coming up with better ways to re-integrate prisoners into society seems right.

Frankly, I am not sure that even constitutes a “Christian case” for the bill.  It lacks a sufficient examination of the various Christian principles involved.  In point of fact it is so nebulous that I am not sure it constitutes a “case” for the bill Christian or otherwise.  At best it advocates for an openness to reform.  As far as it goes that’s fine, but details matter.

When it comes to a Christian view on the matter consider that Christ modelled not only forgiveness, but deep and astounding condemnation in His lifetime on Earth.  Secondly, even the eternal forgiveness of God does not always provide us with escape from the earthly consequences of our actions.  I could go on like that for a while.  The Christian understanding of justice and forgiveness is quite deep and multi-faceted.

I had never heard of or encountered Mr. DuMont prior to this piece.  Apparently he is something of a legend in broadcasting circles.  Given that I write for a radio show blog, I probably should have heard of him – my bad.  But nowhere could I find reference to his credentials or background to speak as a Christian or on behalf of the Christian community.  Therefore it is a bit odd to me that he would stick his head up in this fashion at this time.

And finally as a disclaimer, I have not looked deeply into the bill now before the House.  I have followed the discussions on the show but do not know any details, save for those details discussed on the show, of the bill.  I do not know exactly what it does, nor how it does them.  But I do think a discussion about a Christian view of criminal justice is important, and certainly needs to be considered more carefully than Mr. DuMont did.

In my life I have had various and sundry interactions with the criminal justice system.  I have had clients convicted of crimes on several occasions.  I should mention they are those that either ignored my advice or that only hired me after being charged.  I had one client sentenced to five years that served one night as the warden kicked him to work-release immediately.  I have been involved in ministry to prisoners and have met some serving way too much time and some serving way too little.  I have done expert testimony on criminal cases.  Our justice system is incredibly complex, full of various authorities and powers making decisions about any given case.

Then there is the time I have spent with the Bible.  God’s justice is quite difficult to reduce to a set of specifics or rules.  The King of Israel committed murder and God readily forgave him.  The only truly innocent man in human history was crucified.  On the one hand Jesus counselled us to forgive, yet He Himself not just condemned, but destroyed the Temple courtyard.

For a Christian, justice is an incredibly difficult thing to nail down.  That also makes it difficult to legislate.  What is specifically just in any given situation is going to depend heavily on the specific situation.  What is required, more than anything else is good, no make that “great,” judgement.  Judgement, or “discernment” as it is called in some Christian circles, depends on knowing all the facts, being of good character, and of a ceaseless effort to seek out the mind of God.  To truly achieve justice in our system, any system really, we need great judges.

If I had to guess about the bill currently before the House, I would guess that it will fix some problems. ignore some others, and will undoubtedly create some new ones.  There will always be a circumstance unanticipated that calls for punishment, or lack thereof, that the bill will not permit.  Like most things we try to fix with our government these days, our government simply cannot fix it.

Our law schools have to get better, our preparations for law school have to get better.  Our character formation as a society and a church has to get better.  If you want true justice – that’s what it is going to take.

“The Christian Case for Criminal Justice Reform” must be deeper than this bill or any other legislation on any level of government.  One thing I do know – we do not honor God nor His justice by using a Christian label to badger people into a given political position.  Christ came to elevate us, not herd us.


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