Prison Overcrowding

Among the many dark clouds on California’s horizon is the particularly ominous U.S. Supreme Court dictate that the Golden State must soon release 46,000 felons from its prison system into the general populace, citing the condition of healthcare within the prison system as its reason for doing so.  Setting aside for the time being the rather dubious Constitutional concerns driving this decision by the Court, it is imperative that we focus on the detrimental effects of a soft-hearted justice system upon society, for we are experiencing its end-game with frightening ferocity.

There has been only one perfect blueprint for human society ever delivered to humanity, and that blueprint may be found in the Law of Moses (Genesis – Deuteronomy), where it must be noted that Jehovah did not institute a prison system for His people Israel.  If the crime committed was a serious one, the penalty was death (see Leviticus 20 for examples); all minor criminal offenses resulted in swift, stern physical punishment or financial fining, followed by release (Exodus 22; Deuteronomy 25:2,3); and chronic offending was deemed a serious offense that resulted in capital punishment (Deuteronomy 21:20 ).  In this way the Israelite society was largely bereft of the criminal element, for all serious criminals were executed, leaving every Israelite to grow up knowing that he or she had but one chance to dwell decently among the living, and that upon committing serious criminal offense they forfeited that chance.  There was no rehabilitation, there was no study of the psyche or background of the criminal, and there was no forgiveness.

This system may seem a bit stern to us today, for we deem ourselves enlightened beyond the wisdom of the Scriptures, but we disregard Holy Writ only at our great peril, whether individually or corporately.  It was indeed a stern system, for every Biblical purpose of human government is stern by design, as compassionate government is at its core an illegitimate idea (a discussion that must wait until another time).  From the standpoint of human government, then, there is only one legitimate way to deal with the sinful human nature, and that is to deal sternly with it, and to do so without delay.

When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong (Ecclesiastes 8:11), and we are also told that it is necessary to purge the evil from among you.  The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you (Deuteronomy 19:19,20).  Both the sinful nature and the criminal element must have a deathly fear of the consequences of breaking the law, for it is the only way for decent society to exist.  It is not without reason that law and order walk hand-in-hand.

As for the idea of compassion, although it is not the legitimate realm of government, it is most certainly the realm of the individual (Matthew 5:7), and must be shown by us wherever possible.  Simply because we are seeing that we will lose our society if we do not soon restructure it in line with Biblical principles does not mean that we leave the criminal to face the sternness of justice alone.  He or she should be shown what kindness they can (Proverbs 31:6), and we must certainly take note of the compassion of Jesus upon the Cross as He dealt with the repentant criminal upon one of the crosses next to Him (Luke 23:39-43).  Although this justly-condemned criminal put his faith in his Messiah, Jesus did not free the man from the sentence of death, but He did offer him forgiveness and eternal life.  So, too, must we see to it that all of the condemned have a chance to repent and receive Christ, and this means that we must love the unlovely enough to visit them in their place of incarceration, whether we agree with the system or not (Matthew 25:32-46).  A condemned criminal became the first Believer; let us through love and compassion see such a wonderful thing happen time without number.

But let us think with sober minds.  These 46,000 will simply be the first of many more who will revolve quickly through the system, becoming more accomplished criminals with each shortened trip through prison.  This will in turn overburden city and county law enforcement agencies already experiencing the depletion of officers and deputies due to budgetary restraints, resulting in a potential breakdown of civil society.  We have sown the wind, and now are reaping the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7).  The Scriptures show a better way.

8 thoughts on “Prison Overcrowding

  1. Well said, it seems that by treating the punishment of criminals lightly we are training our children to disrespect law and order.

  2. I agree with your article that the death penalty should be used much more frequently. Rehabilitation is an illusory goal in our criminal justice system. The death penalty serves retributive goals and deterrent goals, as well as reducing the twin enemies of recidivism and prison overcrowding.

    But while I do believe that the use of violence to enforce the law is generally necessary and proper, I am concerned that the overly ambitious scope of the criminal law in the United States tends to undermine the legitimacy of the system as a whole. The government’s main job is to protect life and property, and I believe that its monopoly on violence should be used with a narrow focus and extreme care. My concern is with overly broad criminal laws that sweep non-violent, non-property harming, and essentially victimless “crimes” into the scope of government action. The drug laws are relics of the Progressive Era and the New Deal (both known for mishaps of social engineering and government overreach), and they were enacted with the specific intent of targeting racial minorities. Opium laws were targeted at chinese immigrants and marijuana laws were targeted at mexican immigrants. It’s really no wonder that their enforcement has proved disparate. That’s not to say that disparate enforcement is intentional (anymore).

    Your comment (from our other discussion) that the police fight crime where it exists and more crime where it exists more is true. However, I believe that the drug laws actually create more violent crime than they deter by the creation of a black market. In poorer neighborhoods the option of selling drugs for quick cash is more alluring and the stakes are higher. I’m not one to argue that poverty causes crime, but I am arguing that the laws cause a certain amount of crime. And because police are on higher alert in poorer neighborhoods (and because of policies like “stop and frisk”), we have a situation in which minorities tend to be arrested for more nonviolent offenses. The racial disparity is certainly not my only argument, but it does seem relevant in the context of police relations with the community.

    I would love to discuss the moral and economic issues in play here as well, but if I’m pushing the envelope beyond what you’re comfortable with, I’ll let it be with that.

    • Justin

      Thanks for the challenging thoughts. It seems that we agree that sworn law enforcement officers aren’t the ones responsible for the laws they must uphold. We The People are the ones responsible for such laws, and there are mechanisms in place by which we may change them if so desired.

      As to the sheer volume of law – whether Constitutional, legislative or case – I agree that there is a dangerous and dizzying amount of law arrayed against the average citizen. By comparison, the degree of such law arrayed against the ancient Israelite was understandable and memorizable is scope, and I think we err greatly by straying far from such a Divine precedent.

      The genius of good government is knowing where, how, to what degree and upon what basis to design such a canon of law, but since I deal with that topic in my upcoming book, I’m going to hold off on it here (can’t give everything away!). Needless to say, “genius” and “good government” don’t seem to walk hand-in-hand these days.

      I appreciate the education on the genesis of some of the anti-drug laws. I dealt with the idea of bad immigration policy in my series on International Borders, and it doesn’t surprise me that those responsible for idiotic and failed policies would find a way to enact poor laws as a means of covering up their previous failures. Personally, I try never to underestimate Darkness.

      Regarding the realities of actual law enforcement, I stand by my assertion that they fight crime where crime exists, and fight crime more where there is more crime, and we must simply let the social realities fall where they may. I have spent many hundreds of hours on ride-alongs as a law enforcement chaplain, graduated first in my class at the police academy and have interacted with many deputies and officers from several agencies, but I’ve never seen a stop and frisk “policy.” Cops are allowed to have a consensual encounter with anyone in public, but must have reasonable suspicion to detain and must have probably cause or consent in order to search a person (frisk). Additionally, the law allows for them to do a “pat search” of outer clothing in order to establish officer safety under many situations.

      While there may be some rogue officers or deputies of nefarious racial intent, I have seen no evidence that any kind of racial conspiracy exists within the ranks of law enforcement – it’s simply too transparent an enterprise to allow for it any longer. I would humbly submit that your law enforcement paradigm is stuck in the ’70’s.

      If the law is the problem, then change the law, not law enforcement. And yes, there is way too much law!

      • I definitely didn’t mean to imply that police generally have discriminatory intent in the way they enforce the law. We’re in agreement there. To me the economics of the black market are relevant to the prevalence of the drug trade in the inner cities, although I do try to stop short of claiming that poverty “causes” crime. As to changing the laws, I am hoping to make a career of that.

        I apologize for the confusion as to stop and frisk–I was not clear. Lawyers refer to these encounters as “Terry stops” after the Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio. You stated the rationale correctly (officer safety), and I agree with it as far as it goes (limited to the discovery of weapons).

        The reason you have not heard of a stop and frisk “policy” is probably because only certain high crime municipalities use it as a matter of routine practice. New York is the most notable of these. The city instituted it as part of Giuliani’s effort to clean up the streets. It was part of a package including crackdowns on loitering, sleeping in parks, and other “quality of life” crimes. In my view, the danger of using stop and frisk as a routine instead of as a matter of exigency is that it tends to promote targeting for easy arrests rather than officer safety. In Terry v. Ohio, the pat down was in response to an officer’s suspicion that the defendant was “casing” a store in order to rob it. The officer safety rationale makes perfect sense when the defendant is suspected of robbery. But if the practice is used as a widespread strategy to crack down on non-violent crimes, the justification is eroded somewhat.

        Because the probable cause standard does not apply (the standard is “reasonable suspicion,” which is described as “something more than a hunch, but less than probable cause”), it is a practice that can be used rather recklessly, particularly when actively promoted as standard practice for drug enforcement.

        A number of cases in New York have been documented in which the investigation went well beyond a search for weapons. Frequently subjects are ordered to empty their pockets (without the knowledge that they have the right to refuse). In places like New York, the policy tends to catch a lot more people with small amounts of pot than with weapons. Drug arrests that are incidental to such searches are permissible (in the event that the drugs were in a hard container that an officer could have reasonably thought was a weapon), but to me they should be the exception, not the rule.

        Ok I used more words than I intended to, and I probably did not change your thinking at all. But I did feel the need to clarify what I meant.

  3. Oh and to clarify further, by “frisk” I mean simply the pat downs that you are referring to. These may result in further (inside the pockets) searches when the officer feels hard objects that could be weapons. To me the proper legal solution to this (if drugs MUST continue to be prohibited) would be to apply the exclusionary rule to all evidence except for actual weapons. That may be splitting the baby somewhat, but to me it seems like the best (or least bad) way to protect both the suspect’s 4th amendment rights and officer safety.

    • It’s a very difficult (and often thankless) thing that we ask our law enforcement officers to do. I highly recommend that several ride-alongs be included in any law school curriculum. I can probably arrange something for you, if you’re interested. You’d be surprised at how well LEO’s know the law, and how willing they always are to discuss its practical and theoretical application.

      I’m glad someone like you will be working on resetting the volume of law in this country. It’s getting out of control.

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