Balancing the Scales

Since beginning a prison ministry 23 years ago, I've spent a great deal of time examining the problem of crime. My investigations have taken me all the way back to ancient and medieval theories of punishment, including those that advocate boiling criminals in oil. In all of my studies, nowhere else have I seen a more astute analysis of the crime problem than the one given by C. S. Lewis in "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment." Lewis’s essay anticipates the failure of policies that seek to cure or deter crime. According to the so-called "humanitarian" theory of punishment, the criminal is not truly guilty of any crime; instead, he is sick. This theory gave birth to a criminal justice system that sought to rehabilitate offenders rather than punish them. To accommodate those who supposedly needed to be "healed" of criminal behavior, we built huge new prisons in the sixties and seventies, and jammed them full. Then we brought in the therapists. This is precisely the picture Lewis painted more than 30 years ago: He described modern psychotherapists roaming the halls of prisons in their white coats, remaking the inmates "after some pattern of 'normality' hatched in a Viennese laboratory." The huge jump in crime exposes the fallacy of this approach. But the worst aspect of this theory is that it strips man of his dignity: It suggests that he is no longer a moral agent who may be held responsible for his actions. Instead, he is a case number, a patient—an object to be manipulated for social goals. It's a dehumanizing view of the person. No wonder the theory invariably fails. By contrast, Lewis recognized that crime has moral roots; it involves wrong moral choices. While this may seem obvious, few criminologists of our day are able—or perhaps I should say willing—to recognize this simple truth. Not only did Lewis recognize the moral dimension of crime itself, he also saw the implications of stripping a sense of moral culpability from our response to crime. To deny that man is a moral agent capable of right or wrong action is to deny his rationality. Through sin a man is separated from God, but the humanitarian theory of punishment denies that he even bears the image of God. In Lewis's words: "To be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we 'ought to have known better,' is to be treated as a human person made in God's image." Lewis's argument is at the heart of Judeo-Christian belief. The Scriptures teach that people are responsible for their own actions; they must be held accountable and punished for morally wrong choices. Punishment is not primarily about pragmatic goals; it’s about justice. Prisons are thus not primarily for therapy; they exist to confine and punish dangerous criminals. This is the moral perspective undergirding Prison Fellowship's ministry. And it's the reason we press for criminal justice policies that hold criminals accountable for their crimes. No, this doesn't mean we want to go back to boiling them in oil. But it does mean we must teach our neighbors why treating criminals as if they were sick is anything but humane. To demand that the punishment fit the crime is, as Lewis put it, to treat the criminal "as a human person made in God's image."


Chuck Colson


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