Locking more people up in the United States has not made our streets demonstrably safer. So why does it take a recent, narrow Supreme Court ruling, two decades past due, to compel California to finally correct its Eighth Amendment violations and decrease its prison population?
The answer to that question is not merely legal, political or economic, though it includes those aspects. It is not merely psychological or even sociological. It is Biblical.
Unlike the popular dogma of secular humanism, Scripture teaches that sinners are born, not made. Children must be taught to play nice because the antisocial disposition is latent in all of us. It is something we learn to restrain and conquer, not something that "goes wrong" when basically good people learn bad habits. Yet even sinful humans retain the divine image, however imperfect. No crime is sufficiently perverse to erase this fundamental human dignity - which is the metaphysical premise of our Eighth Amendment protection against "cruel and unusual" punishment.
"Tough on crime" advocates are quick to cite the Old Testament law of retaliation - "an eye for an eye" - but are hesitant to acknowledge how Jesus called his followers to rise above seeking retribution. Mosaic retaliation was actually a check on unmitigated wrath against an offender: Punishment could err toward leniency, but it was never to exceed the scope of the crime. Wouldn't this makes three-strikes laws that put teenagers away for life without respect to the immediate crime "cruel and unusual"? Wouldn't it make probation and treatment for minor drug convictions and first-time, nonviolent offenders both appropriate and practical?
I met a few guys in prison who really needed to be locked up. They were dangerous sociopaths without capacity for remorse. I also met plenty for whom a season behind bars was probably a necessary lesson in good citizenship. (I was one of them.) But there were also dozens that seemed to be in the wrong place. One representative example: A geriatric sex offender, serving five years for failing to update his address after changing apartments, more than 15 years after discharging his original sentence. Our prisons are full of such "technical" offenders.
Maintaining public safety is critical to the state's appointed role in God's providential economy, but our bloated prison complex is a blight on the American landscape, a garish reminder of James 1:20, which warns that "the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God." We can overcome our addiction to prisons, but not without a difficult withdrawal. We will have to exchange retributive paradigms for restorative alternatives. We will have to overcome the lure of "satisfaction" with sacrifice and hard work. In short, we must learn to hate the sin while loving the sinner.
"Tough on crime" is the casus belli for our rush to incarcerate. But in denying offenders basic human dignities, we surrender our own dignity. "Tough on crime" is not necessarily incompatible with meaningful and effective rehabilitation, nor does it deny room for mercy and forgiveness. Just ask the crucified felon who became the first to join Christ in paradise.