Scripture gives examples of God authorizing criminal sentences calling for restitution, corporal, and capital punishment. These three types of criminal sentences will be explored later to determine the difference between today’s practices and sound biblical teaching. However, what does the bible teach regarding criminal sentences that call for imprisonment?
“And Joseph’s master took him, and put him into the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were bound: and he was there in the prison.” (Genesis 39:20)
There is a biblical basis for temporary incarceration in prison for awaiting trial, during trial proceedings, or during preparation of an imposed sentence (Isaiah 53:8; Psalm 79:11). However, the Bible has always associated prison sentences with pagan civil governments not in tune with God’s criminal justice system, such as the Egyptian prison previously cited or Christ using a Roman prison as an object lesson (Luke 12:58). In fact, one significant difference between criminal justice systems of the earliest known civilizations and justice systems developed later by men is that the oldest of ancient cultures did not sentence anyone to prison or jail. Yes, the oldest criminal justice systems on record did not sentence convicts to prison terms. Because prison sentences are not allowed in God’s criminal justice system, Moses went against his contemporaries to follow the example of the most ancient legal systems.
Not using prison as a criminal sentence is prudent for a variety of reasons. For example, prison loses potency as a deterrent by limiting society’s exposure to seeing punishment dispensed (out of sight, out of mind). It also unduly wrecks havoc upon families. In addition, God’s model for civil government does not authorize the costly expense of prison sentences. So, how did we go from having no prison terms, to pagan nations sometimes using prison terms, to modern Christians strongly advocating prison sentences when God has not endorsed prison terms?
Fundamentally, the viewpoint behind modern correctional practices was forged upon religious doctrine. Prior to the American war for independence, a shift in how mankind was perceived occurred in both intellectual and religious circles. Instead of humanity being viewed as fallen creatures with destructive tendencies, many adopted the view that mankind is innately good and that even the worst among us possess an inner light capable of self-redemption. In addition, punishment or vengeance, once thought to influence a community through external pressure, began to be viewed as having little or no constructive purpose for society. Since viewpoints can change strategies, thus influencing results, a shift in the public’s view on human nature changed the way civil government dealt with that nature, and today we are reaping the results of that change.
In Britain and colonial America, the number of death penalty laws grew until a staggering two-hundred and twenty-two crimes were punishable by death. This growth was caused by a gross distortion of what God had classed as capital offenses. However, the Enlightenment movement along with a religious sect known as the Quakers set the stage for a new trend. For example, as early as 1682, William Penn, a pacifist leader among the Quakers and the founder of Pennsylvania, issued the Great Act wherein capital crimes under his jurisdiction were reduced to only two: murder and treason. As a result, adultery was no longer punished by death in Pennsylvania, but rather by a whipping and a one-year prison sentence for the first offense, and the second offense brought life imprisonment.[i] Instead of overhauling the system of justice, Penn simply distorted the view of capital punishment in the opposite direction, and in the place where legitimate capital sentences should have been, he proposed that men be sentenced to prison.
Another example of the devoutly religious influencing the use of prisons is a Baptist by the name of John Howard (1720 - 1790). Once a political prisoner for two months in France, John Howard used his subsequent position as High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, England, to voice his suggestions on prison reform.[ii] During Howard’s time, prisons were used to wait for judgment, not as a criminal sentence. However, the nature of imprisonment had been distorted to the point that prisoners, not the government, were expected to pay fees for their upkeep during incarceration. As such, prisons were looked upon as a means of generating revenue and those who could not pay could spend years trying to bribe their jailer for release. Conditions of confinement were often deplorable. Howard sensationalized the appalling conditions of incarceration with a straightforward yet eye-opening report: The State of Prisons in England and Wales. The report used statistics gleaned by personal visits to places of imprisonment. Howard advocated clean, healthy accommodations, adequate clothing and linen, proper health care for prisoners, a chaplain service, work for the prisoners, segregation of prisoners by gender, age, and nature of offence, and for jails to be funded by the public – none of which were standard policy at the time. Howard’s recommendations mentioned thus far were in keeping with biblical principles, but they only addressed part of the judicial system’s problems.
In 1779, Howard introduced the Penitentiary Act, which expected prisoners to work long hours in heavy manual labor during the day and be confined in individual cells at night to meditate upon penitence or remorse over their bad deeds. The goal of this regime of hard work and moral penitence in a sanitary environment was to change the prisoner’s lifestyle through exposure to good work habits and religious instruction. Unfortunately, this approach also removed a convict from close interaction with normal society where the glue of interpersonal relationships stands the best chance of ingraining inner change.
John Howard made a lasting impact on prison life. In fact, various groups continue to monitor prison conditions in honor of his name today. However, Howard failed to realize that without teaching the broader counsel of God regarding criminal justice, his noble efforts would eventually make prisons a charming alternative to judges and change prisons from mostly holding prisoners awaiting trial to places where prisoners serve long-term sentences of confinement. Howard also failed to consider the psychological torment of extended imprisonment. Historian and volunteer director of “The John Howard Society of Canada” summed up the affects of Howard’s movement as follows:
“Howard's ideal prison is comparable to a hygienic and well-run zoo and it illustrates the limitations of his thinking. Only physical suffering aroused his sympathy. His age lacked the knowledge to appreciate the psychological damage of incarceration. More concerned with people than with ideas, at no time did he attempt to deal with the cause of crime. Although opposed to torture, … he did not foresee today's use of imprisonment for long-term sentences.”[iii]
A year after Howard’s death, Philadelphia Quakers turned their Walnut Street Jail into a place that had no work, yet it still had plenty of time for self-reflection and moral penitence. They called their jail “The Penitentiary,” borrowing from Howard’s terminology, but it was the first penitentiary in the modern sense of the term because it lacked mandatory hard labor while focusing upon greater confinement of sentenced prisoners. The goal was again to change the prisoner’s lifestyle, but the Quakers focused upon internal penitent self-reflection, not an external threat of swift biblical punishment.
A devout Quaker active in preaching and writing her own sermons, Elizabeth Fry (1780 -1845) adopted Howard’s ideas and coupled them with concepts of mankind being fundamentally good, that criminal behavior is a result of negative environmental factors, and that isolation from bad influences would be rehabilitative. Elizabeth’s teachings were appealing to left-wing intellectuals who had already embraced the secular philosophy of the “New Enlightenment.” As such, Elizabeth Fry, along with other female Quakers, greatly influenced both America and Europe in how the role of prisons were viewed. Elizabeth’s biographer, Janet Whitney, candidly wrote that Fry was “the first woman other than a queen to be called into the councils of the government in an official manner to advise on matters of public concern.”[iv] And what was the emphasis that Elizabeth’s Quaker-based ideology heralded? It was social rehabilitation base upon nonviolent mentoring and self-reflection. To Elizabeth Fry and her cohorts, confinement was something done for the criminal, not to him.
Quaker abhorrence to the death penalty gained acceptance in the criminal justice community as prisons lost their ghastly image of being foul despotic squalors. For example, the 1796 New York legislature abolished corporal punishment, reduced the number of capital offenses from thirteen to two and authorized construction of the state's first penitentiary. Fifty years later, Michigan became the first English speaking government in the world to abolish the death penalty (Although one crime, treason, remained on the books, it was never used). Then, in 1852, a movement led by Unitarians, Universalists, and Quakers completely abolished any form of death penalty in Rhode Island. Again, this shift was mostly due to religious influence coupled with the allure of sanitized prisons as possible housing for long-term prisoners.
The Quaker belief in the essential goodness of mankind did not align with the Calvinist doctrine regarding the depravity of man. Failures among the penitentiary movement to reform inmates caused Calvinist dominated states to focus upon harsh discipline, unqualified submission to authority, prisoners working in total silence, and maximizing profit from prison labor. These two different approaches polarized America’s judicial system for several decades. Louis Dwight, a minister who was introduced to prison conditions while he served as a traveling agent of the American Bible Society, became a chief spokesman of the Calvinist-influenced approach after visiting the regimented and profitable Auburn prison system.[v] The opposing views on implementing prisons were championed by two groups: the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (Quakers) and the Prison Discipline Society of Boston (founded by Louis Dwight with six of the twelve board of directors being Calvinist ministers).[vi] Regardless of the philosophy used, state prisons continued to gain acceptance and after several decades, the federal justice system began their own prison system. During the beginning of the 21st Century, prison construction shifted into high gear to produce mega-prison complexes and prisons using an inverted fortress design. However, these mega-secure facilities are not designed to see religious penance – a goal embraced by the earlier prison movements. Instead, both designs are aimed at keeping dangerous criminals secured, until their release back into society.
Regarding the psychological depredation that occurs among prison inmates and the effect of releasing them back into the community, one of their own, Steven Stanko, published Living in Prison: A History of the Correctional System with an Insider’s View. Consider the following quotes from the prisoner:
“While inside, I fought insanity almost every breath. Outside, I was losing my family, my friends, my job, my position in life, future memories, and anything else that might ever provide a smile. Inside, I was in a world of murderers, rapists, drug dealers, thieves, and the general scourge of society. Would I be attacked today for bumping into someone at ‘chow,’ or would I be robbed of all my belongings while eating?”[vii]
“The job of any correctional officer is particularly challenging when inmates are beginning their incarceration. At this stage, inmates have just been sentenced to a period of time away from family, friends, and life. To most, everything is lost at this point. There are no wives, children, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, friends, jobs, money, homes, cars, televisions, pets, and/or anything to provide a form of comfort. Also, it must be remembered that the things in life that give an individual a feeling of responsibility are also gone, such as bills, jobs, home duties, and tasks.”[viii]
Incidentally, Steven Stanko was convicted and served eight and a half years of a prison sentence for kidnapping. It was during his prison sentence that he was interviewed for his book. Less than a year after his prison release, he was arrested on April 12, 2005, at a mall in Augusta, Georgia. Why was he arrested? For raping a girl and murdering a woman who had moved in with him, and for murdering a 73 year old man who often visited him. These tragedies would not have happened if the government had been using principles from God’s criminal justice system.
While the Quaker vs. Calvanist arguements raged, a radically new movement emerged calling for probation. The probation movement had its roots in the common law practice of releasing suspects based on their word that they would behave and would appear before a judge if summonsed, much like the modern practice of bail. Several circumstances, however, helped give probation a life of its own. For example, Alexander Maconochie (1787 - 1860) introduced a merit system called “marks” into the English penal colony of convicts at Norfolk Island, near Australia. Maconochie could be described as being a “deeply religious man, of generous and compassionate temperament, and convinced of the dignity of man.”[ix] His system rewarded good behavior in prisoners with supervised release to work. What motivated Maconochie to take this unorthodox approach? Maconochie objected to defined or set terms in prison sentencing. To him, task accomplishments, not time served, should be the basis of release from prison sentences. However, like most reformers of justice systems, he did not try to overhaul the prevailing system of justice or turn to the bible to find out what the system should be doing. Instead, he tried to add another process to the correctional system. Due to British authorities not sharing his enthusiasm over his new system of probation, Maconochie’s experiment cost him his position. Yet, in the 1850’s, Sir Walter Crofton’s Irish Prison System adapted Maconochie’s philosophy and introduced a ‘ticket of leave’ calling for the supervised release of inmates into the community.[x]
Also during the 1800’s, Matthew Davenport Hill (1792 – 1872), a left-wing lawyer who once filled a liberal seat in Parliament, witnessed the use of probation among children. Unruly children were given one-day prison sentences with the stipulation that they be turned over to the close supervision of a parent or guardian (which begs the question of where this parental authority was before the juvenile became a problem child). Attorney Hill later retrofitted this practice to adults: he would seek their release to willing “guardians” who volunteered to take the responsibility of supervising grown men and women. Although these guardians extended their services free of charge, Hill used paid police to periodically visit the guardians and maintain records regarding the behavior of the convicts. To support his efforts of liberal reform, Hill published several works, including the weekly Penny Magazine. He also propagated his left-wing ideas through The Institution for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, founded in 1828 as part of the Temperance Movement.
Meanwhile in America, the Washington Total Abstinence Society rightfully took exception to the use of prisons as an option in sentencing drunkards. Washingtonians abstained from alcohol and believed that alcoholics could be rehabilitated by mentoring with kindness, understanding, and persistent moral support, much like the modern support group Alcoholics Anonymous. Because God’s criminal justice system teaches that prison should never be used as a criminal sentence, Washingtonians had a valid point. However, they failed to consider that quick external pressure from criminal courts against drunkenness can be a righteous deterrent that can be augmented by charity groups offering help to those who freely choose to join them (alcoholics are best helped when external pressure brings them to a breaking point or dead-end forcing them to want to seek an internal change).
One Washingtonian, John Augustus (1785 – 1859), served eighteen years in Boston, Massachusetts, volunteering his services to oversee adults under probation. Augustus also founded one of the main components in modern probation systems: Investigations. In fact, Augustus is not only credited with having bailed out the first probationer from an American prison sentence, but by 1858, he had also successfully bailed out 1,936 men and women who, according to the bible, should never have been sentenced to prison in the first place (ten other prisoners forfeited their bail).[xi] Instead of realizing that God does not endorse prison sentences, men looked upon John Augustus’ results as justification to institute a new method to deal with crime. Therefore, shortly after his death in 1859, Massachusetts passed the first probation statute and the practice then quickly spread throughout America.
Since God did not include probation in His process to combat crime, and thus no divine directive on funding probation, how did people expect to financially support the newly formed probation system? Initially, volunteer groups, such as those led by the Church of England Temperance Society, appointed religious missionaries to local courts. Their initial function to reclaim drunkards was later broadened to include other types of offenses on the condition that convicts keep in touch with the missionary and accept their guardianship. However, following the results of John Augustus in Boston, the state legislature authorized Boston to have a tax-payer paid police officer to administer the probation system. The probation system was later expanded to the entire state of Massachusetts, but the legislature removed it from under local police jurisdiction and created an entire tax funded infrastructure for probation officers. Other states followed in forming new tax supported organizations dedicated solely to probation efforts. Such efforts hit taxpayers for money that God never authorized governments to spend.
Zebulon Reed Brockway, a Michigan penologist, is credited with implementing yet another new system in the United States. Brockway sought to fix the prison system by introducing parole. How does probation differ from parole? Generally, probation is imposed by a court in lieu of prison, especially when the violation carries no prescribed minimum period of imprisonment. It is the government’s burden to prove that a convict violated probation, and it must do so in a court of law upon an alleged criminal offense. In the meantime, the probationer will remain in the community until proven guilty. On the other hand, parole is a ticket of leave from prison, allowing the convict to serve some time while living in society, instead of serving it all in prison. However, the parolee bears the burden of proof that he has not violated his parole. Thus, any alleged violation of parole can bring about the parolee’s immediate arrest and incarceration, wherein he must attempt to convince a Parole Board that he is innocent of violating his parole. The Board can then choose to reinstate or revoke his parole.
Probation and parole systems gained favor in the eyes of people who did not see prison as being an efficient means of administering discipline and they also gained favor in the eyes of people who did not see prison as being efficient monetarily. It costs more money to run prisons than it does probation and parole systems. The more prisoners a system has, the more costly it becomes. In America, the financial strain caused by the Civil War pressured governments to use probation and parole methods as tools for cutting prison costs and manpower requirements, thus plunging the use of probation and parole into the judicial mainstream.
By now, a repetitive pattern in the recent history of criminal justice should be apparent to the reader. First, a criminal justice system strays from God’s original design and distorts aspects that God had ordained. Second, someone clothed in an aura of religiosity heralding good will toward men takes exception to some criminal sentence, such as capital punishment, and blames its misuse on a corrupt, unfair, or unreasonable criminal justice system. Third, their claim against the system is disingenuous. They never seek to dismantle the criminal justice system and replace it with one in tune with God’s Word, thus their real qualm is not with the system. Forth, their suggestion generally strays further away from godly punishment, only to add a form of justice of which they are either the creator or prophet. Fifth, they may justify themselves by pointing to biblical passages that they do not understand to make God’s way appear unreasonable. For example, someone may decry a convict’s death sentence by pointing to symbolic law, such as an Old Testament Israelite death penalty for picking up sticks on the Sabbath, or by misrepresenting the New Testament as being against all capital punishment. Their real agenda, however, is to replace capital punishment with a manmade solution, not fix the justice system. Read current newspaper articles on criminal justice and you will eventually run across this five-step pattern of offering prison, probation, parole, or other novel ideas, such as community registration of certain types of criminals. The result shifts punishment from the backs of convicted criminals and places it upon the backs of innocent taxpayers, straddling them to pay for the elaborate schemes of a so-called “correctional system.”
Today, our civil government is financially overburdened by vain attempts to make prison sentences as well as probation and parole systems work. Why is it overburdened? The answer is that you cannot ignore God’s optimal design and avoid drawbacks. Unfortunately, Christians helped ingrain these unbiblical sentences into civil government. Even today, the trend among those calling themselves Christian is to criticize the justice system only to offer suggestions that are contrary to God’s ideal criminal justice system. Like the religious movements of the past that helped bring prison, probation, and parole sentences into reality, modern religious spokespersons fail to thoroughly study the ideals of biblical jurisprudence before offering their solutions. The bottom line is that the majority of people have examined and valued their solution to crime more than the one proposed by God.
[ii] Godber, J. (1977). John Howard the philanthropist. Bedfordshire, England: Bedfordshire CountyCouncil Arts and Recreation Department. Pp 2-8.
[iii] Hay, Gordon.. Biography of John Howard. The John Howard Society of Canada. The National Adult Literacy Database and The John Howard Society. 1998.
[vii] Stanko, Steph, Gordon A. Crews, and Wayne Gillespie. Living in prison: a history of the correctional system with an insider’s view. Greenwood Publishers, 88 Post Road West, Westport, CT 06881. 2004. pg 172.
[viii] Stanko, Steph, Gordon A. Crews, and Wayne Gillespie. Living in prison: a history of the correctional system with an insider’s view. Greenwood Publishers, 88 Post Road West, Westport, CT 06881. 2004. 176.
[ix] Barry, John V., Alexander Maconochie of Norfolk Island, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1958.
This site was last updated on 04/12/08