Justice with Mercy for Criminals 5 May 2015
Dead Man Walking is one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen. For readers who are unfamiliar with the film or book, it’s the true story of Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun who, through providing spiritual support to a prisoner sentenced to death (a character based on two prisoners she supported in real life), came to commit her life to campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty.
The prisoners in question were guilty of kidnapping and murdering an innocent couple. One of the criminals also raped the woman.
It’s hard to hear stories like this and not feel revulsion towards the criminals who committed such detestable acts. Many will sympathise with the judge who sentenced them to execution, and perhaps far fewer will sympathise with Sister Helen. How could she support such odious criminals when they had destroyed the lives of an innocent couple, along with those of their families, friends and communities?
I certainly wonder how many British citizens would sympathise with her. Indeed, with repugnant acts like the killing of Fusilier Rigby, and the recent plot to behead a British soldier by an Islamic State sympathiser, it’s no wonder that we hear repeated cries in British society to bring back the death penalty, to exchange life for life, to “hang the b*******”.
But the challenge for anyone who is committed to human flourishing – and for Christians, I would argue, in particular – is to balance revulsion at heinous crimes with the need for rehabilitation. So often we hear cries for sentences to be longer, for prisons to be tougher, and generally to make life worse for prisoners. So often people insist on the obligations of the state to make life in prison miserable. But how often do we hear of passionate demands that prison staff invest in helping people to become law-abiding citizens?
Yet it is rehabilitation, not harsher punishments for deterrence, which is truly in our interest – for practical and ethical reasons. Practically speaking, it’s well known amongst researchers and policy-makers that tougher sentences and prison conditions don’t make for more effective deterrents. Some studies even suggest that criminals from high security prisons are more likely to reoffend than those from minimum security prisons.
This was evident to me in a case of a one habitual thief who himself lamented on TV the lax state of prisons today. In his latest spell in prison – a sixth occasion – he was in disbelief at how much easier prison life was now than when he’d first been in jail in the seventies, when prison guards were still allowed to beat convicts in British prisons. My immediate question was simple: if prison was so unbearable when you first arrived, why did you keep reoffending? Clearly even in the “good old days” when prisoners didn’t have those wishy-washy lefty nonsenses like “human rights”, making prisons harsher didn’t mean greater deterrence. The problem clearly runs much deeper.
And what of the ethical reasons? Prisoners must be seen not just as “the other” – people wholly unlike us “civilised” people. They are so often the victims of dysfunctional families, broken relationships, or deprivation. Of course they are also responsible for their actions, and those with sufficient mental capacity must be deemed to be culpable – but the notion that the only cause of most offences is the criminal’s own depraved character is indefensible.
There is, no doubt, a tension between viewing the criminal as responsible for their actions and as the victim of circumstances over which they have no control, and in need of proper support to overcome these. But both of these must be taken into account if recidivism is to be reduced effectively. The prisoner must have the opportunity both to reflect on the immorality of their actions, and to be guided, with support, to reform their character and properly reintegrate into society. And no: releasing them on parole with £46 in their pockets doesn’t count as effective support.
This argument may sound like liberal, hippy claptrap to some. But one audience at least, I hope, will be sympathetic to it, because it should be familiar. For Christians, every human being has the capacity to commit evil, and we are accountable for our evil acts – yet at the same time, in mercy, God offers forgiveness through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who simultaneously both understands human weakness and temptation, and calls us to redemption.
But surely our basic condition as human beings is different to the state of convicts, because we’d never murder, rape or steal? Actually, the message of Jesus in the Gospels is pretty clear: unless any of us is completely without sin, we can put our stones back on the ground where they belong. This is particularly evident when Jesus encounters Zacchaeus, an odious tax-collector who cheated people to earn extra money for himself – effectively a thief. Yet whilst the rest of society treated him with the contempt they believed he deserved, Jesus asked to come and stay at his house. Whilst the rest of society (perhaps understandably) ostracised this man who didn’t deserve any better, Jesus showed grace and love: and through experiencing this, Zacchaeus’ heart was changed and his character reformed.
If we began to see criminals as wrongdoers in need of grace and love, rather than people we shouldn’t have anything to do with, how different would our society look? Of course they should acknowledge their wrongdoing and be punished for it – but this should be juxtaposed with a gracious investment in their rehabilitation and reformation, so that they ultimately, along with the rest of society, can be enabled to flourish.
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