What Is the Answer?
PRISON population continues to grow. So does crime. How obvious it is that something else must be done. But what?
There are several things to consider. One is what is within the scope of humans. Another is what is outside their power, but will be done without fail.
What are some of the things people and governments could change if they would be so inclined?
Uniform Justice Needed
One thing they could change is the lack of uniformity that now exists. The penalty for an offense in one place is not always the same as in another. That discourages respect for law and embitters offenders.
For instance, a rapist in Connecticut is said to serve an average of one year and nine months’ imprisonment. But just across the state line in New York the average term is said to be four years and two months. A killer in Texas serves about two years and nine months on the average. But in Ohio, the same kind of offender generally serves fifteen years and two months.
One man, aged thirty-two, unemployed and with a wife who had just suffered a miscarriage, forged a check for $58.40. He had no previous police record and was an honorably discharged war veteran. The judge sentenced him to fifteen years in prison. In the same year, another thirty-two-year-old man, also unemployed, forged a check for $35.20. However, he had been in jail twice before, once for six months for failure to support his wife and child. Yet, the judge who handled this case sentenced him to only thirty days. The man with the better record received about 180 times as severe a punishment!
In Atlanta a middle-aged credit union treasurer was sentenced to only 117 days for embezzling $24,000. In prison he met another embezzler his own age, with no previous record and a good family life, who was serving twenty years’ imprisonment with five years of probation to follow. A stripteaser in Texas received a fifteen-year jail sentence for possessing marijuana. But three drug company scientists who pleaded guilty to falsifying data on drugs that hurt hundreds of people were given suspended six-month sentences.
Such cases illustrate the need for the law to be uniform, fair, with consideration given to the record of offenders. But that kind of fairness, that kind of uniform justice, is nowhere on the horizon from man’s point of view.
What About the Victims?
An element that is almost entirely missing from the treatment of criminals is consideration for their victims. A person can be crippled, robbed, defrauded, raped, and yet little is done to compensate the victim. Instead, the offender is given a prison sentence, and later the weight of sympathy seems to go to the criminal, with the innocent victim often forgotten.
What alternative is there to this unbalanced state of affairs? Washington, D.C., lawyer Ronald Goldfarb had this to offer:
“A full-blown victim-compensation program is a major alternative to imprisonment. Over 80 percent of crime relates to property, and punishing the offender does little to protect the victim or make him whole.
“In most cases, it seems to me that the one thing the victim of, say, a theft wants and society in general wants for its collective peace of mind is redress for the victim.
“If someone steals $100 from me, it does me very little good if the thief is sent away to prison for a year. I would rather have my $100 back, possibly a little more to pay for my trouble.”
How does he suggest that this be done if the criminal has no money? He says: “The criminal without money could serve his sentence on a public-works project to earn money to pay the cost of his crime. The extraordinary offender might be deprived of the right to work outside of prison on probational control, but even he should be required to work in prison to pay his victim.”
Could such a system work with some of those who are in prison now? It would seem so, since most are not what one would call ‘hard-core’ criminals. In fact, prison administrator Bennett observed:
“One of the misconceptions about prisons is that they are filled with sadistic murderers, desperate gunmen, romantic cracksmen, and cunning swindlers. In fact, the ‘big shots’ amount to no more than one in ten . . .
“The rest are what I call ‘eight-ball Willies,’ and the typical prisoner has never made more than fifty dollars out of a single crime. He is a young auto thief riding off in search of his El Dorado, or a fool who would risk ten years in prison to get ten dollars out of a drug store cash register.”
It is the opinion of a growing number of officials that many of these prisoners could have been left out of prison altogether without endangering society. In fact, some of these types of prisoners are already in an ‘open prison’ system that Sweden and a few other lands have experimented with. These institutions have no walls, no bars, no patrolling armed guards. Prisoners are on an honor system and report back to their rooms after work. For such kinds of prisoners, if work were tied to compensation for the victim, some authorities feel that most prisons could be practically emptied. They feel that only the hard-core criminal would need to be kept in jail.
Was there ever a time when an entire nation used a similar system of compensation made by the offender rather than imprisonment? Yes. Did it work? Yes. It was used on a national scale by ancient Israel.
How Israel’s Law Worked
The laws governing ancient Israel were given by God through Moses. Since God made man, he surely would know best how to deal with the full range of human activity, including the treatment of offenders.
As noted previously, God’s law through Moses made no provision for any prison sentences. It provided other specific penalties for crimes. Crimes against property, such as theft, destruction or fraud, were never handled by imprisoning the offender. Instead, the basic punishment was compensation to the victims.
For example, if a person stole a bull or a sheep, and was caught with the animal, he would have to compensate by giving the victim two bulls or two sheep. The penalty was double the amount of the theft or of damage done. If the thief had already slaughtered or sold the bull or sheep, then the compensation went up: for the bull he would have to pay back five bulls; for the sheep, four sheep. Stolen items other than livestock required double compensation.—Ex. 22:1-9.
But what if the offender could not make compensation for the theft? Then he would be sold into slavery and the price used as the compensation. He served his master until he had worked out his debt. As a slave, however, the law required him to be treated kindly as a hired laborer. Thus, the victim would be compensated, and so would the one who paid for the slave, since he would be getting work in return.—Ex. 22:3.
Today a person who assaults another is given either a jail sentence or a suspended sentence on probation. But his victim may miss weeks or months of work. Who pays the victim’s bills while he is incapacitated? Not the offender. In some places the victim may have no income of any kind and thus become a burden on the community.
But under the law that God gave ancient Israel the offender would have to compensate the victim for his time lost from work: “In case men should get into a quarrel and one does strike his fellow with a stone or a hoe and he does not die but must keep to his bed; . . . then the one who struck him . . . will make compensation only for the time lost from that one’s work until he gets him completely healed.”—Ex. 21:18, 19.
This is not to say that in today’s complex and bewildering state of affairs precisely the same methods could be used. But surely some method by which the offender compensated the victim would be superior to a prison sentence for the offender and no compensation for the victim, as is now the case.
What About Capital Punishment?
Today the trend is away from capital punishment, even for hardened murderers. The guilty are imprisoned instead.
Yet, after a few years in prison, some are released. Sometimes they kill again. President Pompidou of France recently noted an incident where prisoners in a French jail killed two hostages. He used the occasion to tell of a man who had killed his wife, served time in prison as a ‘model’ prisoner, was released, married the prison social worker—and killed her two years later.
Another killer boasted that he had murdered twenty-two people. He vowed that he would murder a prison guard to make it twenty-three. While in prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, he accomplished that threat. He killed a guard. Another innocent victim had died.
All too often, that is the pattern. Released murderers kill again. And all too often the innocent first victims, as well as the innocent later victims, are lost sight of in misplaced sympathy for the murderer.
What was God’s law to ancient Israel concerning such offenses? The convicted murderer would, without fail, be put to death. This served as both a punishment and a deterrent. And there was no ambiguity on the matter. One court would not decide one way, and another court some other way. The matter was handled uniformly all over the country because the same laws applied everywhere.—Ex. 12:49.
Thus, in ancient Israel there would never be the possibility that murderers would be released to kill other innocent persons. They, the guilty, being forewarned by the law concerning the preciousness of life in God’s sight, would pay the price.
Accidental manslayers were handled differently, although they still were not put in prisons. But because they had taken life, they were required to live for a specific period of time in areas set aside for that purpose. There they could carry on the normal pursuits of life, but could not leave, under penalty of death. So a restriction was imposed because they had taken life, but a merciful arrangement was allowed them because it had been unintentional.—Num. 35:6-32.
Also of great interest is how unreformable criminals were dealt with in Israel, even where their crimes would not have originally merited the death penalty. If persons deliberately refused to abide by the law, if they were beyond reform, they were put to death. In this way two things were accomplished. As Deuteronomy 17:12, 13 says: “You must clear out [by execution] what is bad from Israel. And all the people will hear and become afraid, and they will not act presumptuously anymore.” Yes, unrepentant criminals were ‘cleared out,’ executed. This served as a punishment, as a deterrent and also as a protection to the innocent who desired to live law-abiding lives.
So there were no prison sentences in ancient Israel. Costly prisons and the huge taxes needed to maintain them were unknown. And as long as the rulers and the people obeyed these laws, the nation prospered. But when they failed to respect and uphold those divine laws, then the nation began to degenerate into lawlessness. Eventually, the decline resulted in the destruction of the nation.
The key to real reform is education. Education in what? In the right standards of living, right morals, right attitudes. Who can guarantee that a certain pattern of education is right, the best one for people? Only the instruction that comes from God could possibly be so.
This is not to say that you should expect the arrangements for handling offenders in ancient Israel to be adopted by the nations today. None of them are submitting to rule by God. Therefore, it cannot be expected that they would employ God’s laws and principles to the full. However, the closer they get to doing so, the more just and humane will be their law enforcement and the more effective it will be in deterring crime.
At any rate, real reform, even in this corrupt system of things, is possible on an individual scale. Today, there are people who are definitely making the mental change that produces right thinking and conduct. How? By heeding the Bible’s counsel: “Quit being fashioned after this system of things, but be transformed by making your mind over, that you may prove to yourselves the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”—Rom. 12:2.
Even former criminals have done this. They have been totally reformed by their study of God’s laws as recorded in his Word, the Bible. Adopting the superior way of life God recommends has led them to become law abiding, an asset to a community.
What would happen if masses of people would do this? Well, we do not have to wonder. It is not just a theoretical question. It is actually being done by masses of people today! Jehovah’s witnesses in 207 lands throughout the world, over 1,500,000 of them, have adopted God’s superior code of living. They can testify that it is effective, practical. And one evidence of this is the fact that as a society of people Jehovah’s witnesses find their ranks virtually crime free. It is one reason why hundreds of thousands of persons have associated with them in recent years and continue to do so.
But Jehovah’s witnesses face things realistically. They know that this system of things as a whole is beyond reform. So they do not at all expect to convert the world so that everyone adopts God’s code for human behavior. Indeed, God himself has decreed the end of this lawless system of things. The history of his dealings with men also contains this prophetic guarantee: “Evildoers themselves will be cut off, . . . The righteous themselves will possess the earth, and they will reside forever upon it.”—Ps. 37:9, 29.
The time is soon to come when God will bring this system to an end. Then he will rip away all authority from human governments. (Dan. 2:44) Their conflicting law codes will thus disappear in one swift stroke.
After that, only God’s laws will govern people. Those laws will be fair, loving, uniform, based not only on the ideals of the law given to ancient Israel, but on the principles of Christianity as taught by Jesus. God’s superior standards will be enforced by a loving but firm and incorruptible government, God’s heavenly kingdom under Christ, the one for which Christians have been taught to pray.—Matt. 6:10.
In that new order every inhabitant will be taught God’s superior laws. Then it will be true as never before that “the earth will certainly be filled with the knowledge of Jehovah as the waters are covering the very sea.” (Isa. 11:9) With what result? The law-abiding inhabitants of the new order “will indeed find their exquisite delight in the abundance of peace.”—Ps. 37:11.
Will there be any prisons in that new order? No, instead we could expect that any offenses would be taken care of in a way similar to that in ancient Israel, without the use of prisons. Hence, those who put their trust in God’s promises and live by his laws right now will without fail see the time come when prisons will disappear from the face of the earth.
[Diagram on page 16]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
EXAMPLES UNDER THE MOSAIC LAW
STEALING ONE SHEEP TWO SHEEP
STEALING AND KILLING ONE BULL FIVE BULLS
STEALING BUT UNABLE TO WORKING TO PAY DOUBLE THE
MAKE COMPENSATION VALUE OF WHAT WAS STOLEN
MURDER DEATH PENALTY (USUALLY BY STONING)
UNREFORMABLE CRIMINAL DEATH PENALTY
[Picture on page 14]
What compensation does the victim get from the criminal?