This post is meant for those of the Christian mindset, which is why its reasoning is more theological than philosophical. However, a good natural law argument can be made as well, mostly that all humans are worthy of being treated with dignity.
There’s a meme making its way around Facebook talking about Sheriff Joe Arpio and his harsh method of delivering justice to his inmates. The picture (seen above) it accompanied with a list of what Sheriff Arpio has done while the sheriff for his county. He’s made his prisoners wear pink, work in chain gangs, pay for their meals, and the like. In addition to that, to save taxpayer money, he’s opened up a tent city wherein prisoners have to live despite the harsh desert heat.
When faced with criticism, he has responded with, “These criminals are paying a debt they owe to society.” And there is a bit of truth to such a statement; after all, our modern penal system is simply a way for a criminal to further his education in being a criminal. County jails tend to be a criminal’s college, state penitentiaries tend to be graduate work, and federal penitentiaries tend to be post-graduate. Thus, perhaps it’s good that we look at reforming our system.
Sheriff Arpio, however, goes too far. The problem is he’s practicing retributive justice (eye for an eye), which does nothing for the criminal or for the victim. It may give us an emotional feeling of justice, but it’s not actually justice. Ignoring the drug users who are mixed in the group (and I fail to see why anyone who uses drugs should ever be imprisoned or fined above being put in rehab), let us assume that someone is a violent criminal. He broke into the home, beat up the owners, and stole some property. How is him sitting in a tent in the desert beneficial to the owners or beneficial to the criminal? Retributive justice gives us the sense of justice, but isn’t justice because it accomplishes nothing.
It would make more sense to have him do labor (though not necessarily hard labor) that at the same time teaches him a skill he can use once he is released from prison. The wages he earns while imprisoned can be given to his victims as a way to reconcile himself with those he harmed. At the same time, we should do what we can to reform him. In this way, we have concerned ourselves with the victims first to ensure they receive a just compensation for what they lost and what they endured, but equally we have concerned ourselves with the welfare of the criminal. This is reconciliatory justice. It’s actual justice because it seeks to bring a criminal – who is a criminal because he abandoned the norms of society – back into society to be a productive member. It actually accomplishes something while also aiding the victim.
People would raise three questions to the idea of reconciliatory justice. The first is why should we concern ourselves with the welfare of the criminal at all. After all, he violated the public trust and the Common Good, so why should we concern ourselves with his well being when he did not concern himself with our well being? The answer to such a question is that despite what the criminal has done, he is still made in the image of God and is therefore worthy of dignity and respect. Just because he has failed to show such dignity and respect to other image-bearers does not grant us the right to treat him as such; though clichéd, it is true that two wrongs do not make a right. Being in the image of God means that the criminal deserves some semblance of respect and dignity, which is what Sheriff Joe Arpio removes from his inmates. They are forced to live outside in the heat and subjected to harsh conditions; this is not something worthy of God’s image.
The second question raised would be how we could promise that criminals could be reformed when it seems that most criminals don’t want to be reformed. The argument that accompanies this question is that most criminals don’t want to reform, after all, most of them return to prison within a few years of being released. My answer to this is that such a question and argument betrays a type of fatalism, or genetic determinism. Some people are just born (or conditioned) to be criminals and there’s nothing we can do to change them. There is no hope for redemption for them. But such an argument flies in the face of the Gospel, which teaches that all people can come to Christ, despite their backgrounds. If anyone can come to Christ, then certainly anyone can also be morally reformed from a criminal past. If we believe that criminals cannot be reformed, then why don’t we make the punishment for every crime the death penalty? Everything from simple thievery to tax evasion to selling drugs to murder should all be punishable by death. If the criminal cannot be reformed, or if we think it’s unlikely that he’ll be reformed, then why not just kill him? Perhaps we’re afraid that this would result in many innocent people being killed, so then let’s make all sentences life-sentences without the eligibility for parole. Whether you are caught stealing a stick of gum or murdering someone, you end up with a life sentence.
Such an idea is, of course, absurd and no rational person would ever endorse it. We endorse graduated sentencing based on the crime in part because we believe that the less severe the crime, the less likely the person will return to it. Deep down we hope that people can be reformed, but the way we have established our system completely prevents true reform from occurring. We allow our prisoners to leave without any skills to make it in the real world and then our society attaches a stigma to these criminals so they cannot acquire a job. Is it any wonder that we get repeat offenders?
As a side note, I do understand that there are some criminals who are mentally ill or simply refuse to be reformed. But there is no way these people constitute the majority of people within our penal institution. Such committed criminals could certainly remain in prison for the rest of their lives, with us always trying to reform them, but not releasing them for fear they will strike again. This is actually humane and dignified both to their potential victims (in that we protect the victims) and to the criminal, as it protects him from further violating God’s image within him by harming others. However, forcing someone who is capable and willing to reform into a life sentence or a harsh sentence and not giving him the chance to reform is inhumane and undignified because it gives him no hope for redemption.
The final question one could ask would be why should taxpayers have to pay for the criminal’s reform. How is it that someone commits a crime and then it becomes the taxpayers’ responsibility to pay for his crime? The reason is quite simply that we want a better society, and sometimes we as a whole have to pay for a better society. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, so obviously the status quo isn’t working. We need something new, and any program that upholds the dignity of God’s image in people and seeks to bring that image to the forefront in their character is worth the payment. If we were able to reform our criminals, especially if we get them at a younger age, to where they become productive members of society, then our society would be stronger and better. The taxpayer money then becomes an investment, as a stronger society leads to a stronger economy, which leads to more money for the taxpayer.
More importantly, however, many of these criminals come from impoverished areas of the country. Were to we work to reconcile these criminals, by teaching them virtue while imprisoned as well as helping them find a skillset to help them on the “outside,” perhaps when they moved back into these impoverished areas they could help to make a difference. They could open up their own businesses or work with the ones already in the community to hopefully strengthen that community. While the ideal would never be achieved, it is still good to work towards the ideal so that we’ll be left better off than we currently are.
Ultimately, we need to remember the parable of the unforgiving debtor (Matthew 18:21-35). In this parable, a man ends up owing a great sum of money to someone (ten thousand talents, and one talent would be worth somewhere around $800,000) and promised to work to pay the debt off. The debtor had pity on the servant and forgave him his debt. This servant then turned around and demanded someone in debt to him by 100 denarii (a denarii was a day’s pay for most laborers, or about $60 if we go off minimum wage and an 8 hour day). The servant refused to forgive the debt of the man owing him 100 denarii and had the man thrown in prison.
We must never forget that through God’s reconciliatory justice, our debts have been forgiven. He has helped to reform us from our sins, though we were in debt to Him. The crimes these criminals commit, while ranging from petty to heinous, indebt these criminals to society, their debt is miniscule when compared to the debt we each owe to God. If He can find it within His capacity to forgive us our debt and work to reconcile us, certainly we as a society can do the same to our criminals. While imprisonment is necessary, what we do while the criminal is imprisoned makes all the difference. And making them endure hard labor while living in harsh conditions, while not giving them any skills to survive or training in virtue, without attempting to reform them, makes us the ungrateful servants of God.