This post is 800 words and can be read in about 3 minutes.
Churches have long been among the leaders in criminal justice reform efforts in Canada. Recently, criminal law professor Benjamin Perrin gave a talk in his personal capacity on a Christian perspective on criminal justice. This post draws, with permission, on some parts of that longer talk.
Perrin begins with a question a student asked him: “As a Christian, how can you support a criminal justice system that itself causes so much harm and has so many problems with it?” He had been thinking about this question already, and “my research into these issues was showing me that the status quo was failing miserably and a new approach was needed.” Moreover, “our criminal justice system has been purportedly based on Judeo-Christian principles, yet a critical inquiry into their questionable theological basis is valuable in destabilizing some of the retributivist, ‘tough on crime’ agenda favored by many Christian conservatives.”
The wrong approach
“In Canada and the United States many Christians, particularly Evangelical Christians, are supportive of conservative political parties. They represent a significant and influential political constituency of motivated and reliable political activists, donors, and voters. The political parties many Christians generally support – the Conservatives and Republicans, respectively – have enacted criminal laws that:
- Treat criminals as “bad people” and the rest of us “good people” as pure and innocent – a stark dichotomy of people creating an “us” versus “them” mentality
- Punish harshly with increasingly lengthy terms of imprisonment and condone solitary confinement
- Give little, if any, attention to rehabilitating offenders
- Only recently have shown any care or concern for the victims of crime, and often have done so as another way to justify increased punishment for offenders
- Have viewed restorative justice with suspicion and hostility, and opposed it
As we will see, each of these aspects of conservative criminal justice policy are contrary to the life and teachings of Jesus.”
Perrin comments on the phrase ‘an eye for an eye’, often cited to justify punishment, But his explanation of this comment is, like that of restorative justice advocate Howard Zehr, very different. “Scholars have concluded that the ‘eye for an eye’ verse is figurative, setting out a principle of proportionality… In this light, it was a very progressive concept …. Limiting the punishment to be proportionate to the harm caused” and in fact a justification for compensation rather than vengeance. Indeed, Perrin reminds us that Jesus explicitly disavows the concept of equal return in the Sermon on the Mount.
A Christian approach
What ideas should a Christian approach to justice embody?
- We should recognize that everyone has flaws and makes mistakes. The world is not divided into good and bad people. “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ when it comes to “criminals” and “law abiding” citizens”.
- We are called on to “forgive those who have harmed us and to seek reconciliation with those who we have harmed. This is indicative of a compelling restorative justice vision for criminal justice.”
- The justice system should embody “justice for those who have been harmed or oppressed, and mercy for those who have done wrong”.
- “Sanctions are to correct, denounce, and rehabilitate”. “..we have fallen into the trap… of inflicting punishment on offenders that overwhelm them with excessive sorrow. Our prisons are places of excessive sorrow that ruin people. They are not places where people who have been excommunicated from society are comforted, forgiven, or reaffirmed in love.” In other words, punishment is not the goal or purpose of the system, no matter how satisfying it may feel at the time.
The short form
Perrin puts these ideas into a chart:
|Prevailing conservative criminal justice policy||The Way of Jesus|
|Criminals are “bad” and we’re “law abiding”||All have fallen short of God’s standards|
|Lengthy imprisonment and harsh conditions||Love and compassion for people in prison, justice and mercy, leave room for God’s eternal judgment for those who don’t repent|
|Little attention to rehabilitation||Sanctions are to correct, denounce, and rehabilitate|
|Recent concern for victims, often to justify harsh sanctions or jail conditions||Justice for those who have been harmed or oppressed|
|Suspicion and hostility towards restorative justice||Forgive those who wrong you, and reconcile with those who you have wronged|
In his academic role, Perrin has recently started a new project to reimagine the criminal justice system in a way that is concerned with the well-being of both victims and the people who cause harm. It aims to support, protect, and restore victims of crime. Rather than pursuing flawed approaches of retribution or deterrence to deal with offenders, it acknowledges that punishment (particularly traditional forms of incarceration) fails to rehabilitate, and exacerbates mental health and substance use disorders. Rather than tearing people down, Perrin is concerned with building up people who cause harm through addressing the underlying issues they face and the social inequality in Indigenous and marginalized communities.
Benjamin Perrin is a professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia. He also blogs at benjaminperrinblog.wordpress.com