Thursday, January 10, 2008

What is the purpose of prison?

Why send people to prison?

In discussions about prison there seems to be a strong tendency among many to see prison as primarily being about reforming the offender. Some of these people point to huge rates of re-offending and argue that 'prison isn't working.'

Some people take the view that less people should be sent to prison, particularly female offenders. In their view, only violent offenders should be sent to prison and other offenders should be 'dealt with in the community.'

Let's think about an hypothetical case:

Melanie is a young woman who works in an office. She has never broken a law in her life. She has never hurt anybody, except through a few bitchy remarks when she was a teenager.

One day, she is in a rush on her way to work. In a moment of dizzy blonde-headedness, Melanie decides to put her make-up on while she is driving her car. She loses concentration and loses control of her vehicle. It collides with another car, killing the driver and a passenger. In one stupid, thoughtless moment, this normally well behaved young woman ended the lives of two people.

Melanie is arrested, charged and convicted of causing death by dangerous driving.

Should Melanie be sent to prison?

It should hardly be necessary to send Melanie to prison to reform her behaviour. She had never broken the law before. The shame of knowing that she had killed two people would have served to prevent her ever committing that act again, even if she was allowed behind the wheel of a car.

It is possible that sending Melanie to prison might actually lead her to commit further crimes in the future, rather than reforming her. She would lose her job. She would probably lose her boyfriend too. Her future would be bleak. It is possible that contact with other prisoners might have a corrupting influence on her, now that her life had changed.

While Melanie's actions caused the death of two people, it would be inaccurate to call her a violent offender. If she was banned from driving she would no longer be a threat to the public. Those who argue that non-violent offenders should be 'dealt with in the community' should presumably oppose Melanie's incarceration.

Yet there seems to be two very good reasons why a judge might be quite justified in sending Melanie to prison.

Firstly, Melanie's actions ended two human lives. Giving her a custodial sentence shows the importance of human life and the value upon it.

We find this principle in the Scriptures:

Exodus 21
28 ¶ If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit.

29 But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death.

30 If there be laid on him a sum of money, then he shall give for the ransom of his life whatsoever is laid upon him.

31 Whether he have gored a son, or have gored a daughter, according to this judgment shall it be done unto him.

Though the owner of the ox had not intentionally killed the victim, his carelessness had resulted in death and thus he was in danger of the highest penalty.

This is the principle of retribution. If a person commits a wicked deed; they must atone for it with suffering. This is not a principle which our leaders are keen on, yet it is one that is supported by the Word of God.

There is also another reason for locking up Melanie. That is that her punishment serves as a deterrent to other women who might be tempted to put their make-up on while driving. Thus, lives might be saved through a harsh punishment being given.

The deterrence argument is so often overlooked in modern debates about prison. The liberal critics of prison always point to the high figures of re-offending. However, it should hardly be a surprise that prisoners re-offend. These are the people that were not deterred by the law. It is the harder offenders who will wind up in prison. They are the least re-formeable in the population as an whole.

The statistics will never reveal the extent to which severe sentences deter offenders. This is an hidden figure. Yet it must surely be many.


Jim said...

Over here she would probably be charged with manslaughter and given a minor sentence, depending on her record and sob story.

I agree with you in most cases restitution is the Biblically correct approach.

I am not sure if deterence is the proper way to prevent crime, other than the fear of being caught and suffering the consequences. In that case all first degree murderers should receive capital punishment, along with rapists, and kidnappers.

Similarly, drunk drivers convicted of causing death should also be in danger of a capital offence since they chose to intoxicate themselves. Those arrested with a DUI should be severely reprimanded including the loss of their driving privileges.

Perhaps some real justice in the law would do more to prevent future crimes and criminals.

Dyspraxic Fundamentalist said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Jim.

Palm boy said...

Best defense of sociatial punishment of criminals I've read in a long time.
Thanks Matt.

Dyspraxic Fundamentalist said...


I thought I needed to write a really conservative post in case anybody was getting worried about me.

God Bless