A quick thought on prisons

I stumbled across an article today on the “pay-if-you-go” prison proposal. The short version of the proposal is that the government should force wealthy inmates to pay for their prison stays. The current example is the incarceration of the fraudster Bernie Madoff. As Daniel Freedman writes in Forbes:

In April of each year, the victims of Wall Street fraudster Bernard Madoff will write out checks to pay for his upkeep.

They will do it every time they pay their taxes–so that means ordinary taxpayers, too, deserve to feel aggrieved about Madoff’s offenses.

Freedman is right to be outraged; this is indeed an injustice. However, his solution is simply attempting to apply duct tape to a sinking ocean liner. The problem is systemic, and its roots are found in our flawed penology. We punish thieves–and Madoff is simply a clever thief–by warehousing them in prisons. Instead, what if we were to apply the penology found in Scripture?

If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.

(Exodus 22:1)

Restitution and punitive damages are the focus of a Biblical penology. The thief had to pay back what he stole, and then some. The thief didn’t owe “society”, which really means the government. Rather, he owed his victim.

If we were more concerned about addressing the wrong done to victims and less concerned about the harm done to the system, we would be able to make real progress towards doing justice in this nation. Until then, we will continue to have more and more desperate schemes like “pay-if-you-go”.


2 responses to “A quick thought on prisons

  • Chris Norwood

    I agree with your underlying premise, but what do you do if the criminal has neither interest nor ability to “pay back” the victim? Unless they literally have assets justy lying around that society can apply to this debt, you’ve still got to have some form of greater coersion to force this repayment.

    And then, of course, you have the more serious crimes, such as rape and murder. How could a criminal ever begin to pay back the debt that he owes to those victims? I agree that our system is pretty messed up, but I just don’t see any realistic answers to make it a whole lot better.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra


    Thanks for posting! Let me take your questions in turn.

    “…but what do you do if the criminal has neither interest nor ability to “pay back” the victim?”

    To be clear, I’m talking about coerced restitution. So the criminal’s interest in paying it back is irrelevant. At this point, I think I’d be fine with the government seizing a criminal’s assets to ensure that a judgment against him is paid. This can extend to garnishing wages and the like. For that matter, I’d even be okay with enforced “community service” by the criminal to his victim as a measure to pay off the victim. This can also extend to assault cases and the like. In fact, these sorts of calculations are already made in civil cases. It would probably be a relatively simple matter to implement them. Yeah, I know that there are other issues there, but this is a comment on a blog post, and I only have so much time. 🙂

    As far as more serious crimes, Biblical penology deals with that, too. It says to kill the bastard.

    “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee. But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.” (Exo 21:12-14)

    Again, I could wax eloquent here, discussing further nuances and the like. But, there’s a broad outline of my response to your concerns.

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