Monthly Archives: June 2013

Modern Liberal Christianity and Criminal Justice- A Little More Background

England had a lot of social and religious change starting in the 1600’s, but later it had accelerating economic change as well. As an agricultural society it became overpopulated, and as an industrializing society it couldn’t provide for an increasing number of destitute people.

Since imprisonment wasn’t widely used then, that left corporal punishment and the death penalty for serious crimes. But if people are desperate enough, even the death penalty doesn’t work. If you are going to starve, you are going to steal. Hanging might be a merciful way out.

However with the establishment of overseas colonies, excess people convicted of crimes could be sent elsewhere. The Caribbean, North America, and after US independence Australia. Sending destitute people with no possibilities for work to a place where labor was needed made a lot of sense. Robert Hughes, author of “The Fatal Shore”, a history of transportation (as the punishment was called) as the most successful rehabilitation project in history.

These conditions have not applied for a long time, however. Modern times brought more welfare, and people don’t need to commit economic crimes to survive. A person committing a crime is not doing so to eat, he is doing it for some other reasons.

Thus “job training” and “education” are not going to stop people from committing crimes. People get free education through high school, which will equip them for basic entry-level work. If they don’t have the motivation to seek out an entry-level job of some kind, they are not going to have the motivation to do the work necessary to benefit from provided education or training.

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Modern Liberal Christianity and Criminal Justice, Part II- Punishment and Justice

Modern liberal Christians have an almost entirely negative view of punishment. They tell us regularly what punishment must not be, but have a very limited idea of what it should be.

Punishment must not be retaliatory or retributive, we are told. This is “punitive” or “mean-spirited”- a favorite phrase of blacks attacking longer sentences in the 1990’s. Punishment, as defined in the theory of operant conditioning by B.F. Skinner, is some action, either the imposition or removal of some condition, that reduces or eliminates a behavior of the organism. By this definition, incapacitation isn’t even punishment, since it is only intended to make the behavior impossible, rather than act on the nervous system of the subject to produce change.

In general, however, because while people are not particularly rational, they have fear of punishment so retaliatory or retributive punishments work well. God himself set out many retaliatory and retributive punishments in the Old Testament law, for the purpose of protecting people’s dignity and maintaining social cohesion.

The progressive Christian concept of punishment is more like a time-out for a small child- the offender has some time to calm down, collect himself and realize he has been bad. This should be as short as possible- seven years for first-degree murder, five years for other intentional homicides, three years for other violent crimes, less for non-violent crimes. As strange as it may seem, these were common sentences in the 60’s and 70’s.

Since elimination of witnesses makes conviction less likely, it was clearly a rational act from a punishment standpoint to kill robbery victims, and so murders during armed robberies were common.

Beyond having a brief period to collect himself, the offender could receive education and job training, thus gaining economic opportunity as an alternative to crime. This assumes that crime is a matter of want, rather than something else.

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Modern Liberal Christianity and Criminal Justice, Part I- Background

What we think of as the criminal justice system- police arrest, prosecutors prosecute, attorneys defend, juries convict, judges sentence, the convicted spends a significant amount of time in prison or under the supervision of some official- evolved in two distinct historical stages, and then more recently in one more.

In the old days- 1000 BC to 1000 AD, depending on where you’re talking about- if somebody killed a relative of yours, or stole something of yours, it was your problem. If you were able you could take revenge yourself, if not too bad. When more organized societies evolved, the state would step in and punish the perpetrator, under some formal set of rules. It generally didn’t do this out of the goodness of its heart, but because having people killing each other all the time was bad for business.

Until around 1800, though, punishment changed little. Punishment was death, for serious crimes, or some kind of corporal and socially shameful punishment like flogging or the stocks for lesser ones. Confining people in locked space was something done only for short periods of time, while waiting to appear before a judge. Political prisoners, people who were important enough that you couldn’t just hang or whip them, might be held longer, but this was pretty rare.

Aside from the establishment of formal justice, the second major change was in the change in punishment. As a part of a general movement of social reform led by Quakers and Methodists, the death penalty was kept as a punishment only for murder, and corporal/shame punishment was replaced by confining offenders in a place where they would think about what they had done, or be “penitent”- hence the name “penitentiary”- and leave after some period of time reformed.

The modern progressive prisoner rights movement portrays the US prison system as terribly oppressive, but for most of American history it has been oriented around avoiding excessive punishment and reforming the offender.

The issue of civil rights- including the treatment of prisoners- came to the forefront in the US in the 1950’s. At the same time, violent crime increased significantly. Sentences became shorter and services for prisoners such as education were emphasized more.

The combination of these two things led to chaos. Violent crime terrorized the population and they demanded something be done about it. The liberal description of this reaction was “backlash” and it was attributed to racism and resentment of social change by non-elite whites- a type of person parodied in TV character Archie Bunker. Still the reaction was powerful and it helped lead to the election of more conservative politicians, like Ronald Reagan as governor of California in 1966 and Richard Nixon as president in 1968.

The frustration of not only the people, but the criminologists was intense. Punishing people didn’t seem to work. A criminal went to prison, got out after his term was up, and went right back to committing crimes. Rehabilitating people didn’t seem to work. Criminals got education and job training in prison, but didn’t turn to lives as productive citizens but went right back to committing crimes. Eventually James Q. Wilson- best known for the “broken windows” theory- came up with the concept of “incapacitation”. If criminals didn’t respond to the negative incentive of punishment, and didn’t respond to the positive incentive of a better quality of life as a non-offender, if they were confined they could at least not commit crimes while in prison.

This new idea manifested itself in such policies as longer sentences, mandatory sentences, and increased sentences for repeat offenses- the “two strikes” and “three strikes” laws. Crime has decreased significantly since the 1980’s. Progressives bitterly dispute that the policy of incapacitation is responsible, but it’s been the social and political consensus for some time.

The US is run by liberals. They mostly get their way, but sometimes they know when to leave things alone. Liberals lost a lot of credibility with the criminal justice policies of the 1960’s. People liked getting money from the government, but they did not feel safe, for good reason, under those policies. Smart liberal politicians understood that and adjusted accordingly. Bill Clinton famously went ahead with the execution of a retarded killer. If they were going to have power, they were going to have to go along with what the bulk of the population wanted on criminal punishment.

Nevertheless progressives not running for elective office- judges, lawyers and other activists- never flagged in their campaign against the death penalty and long sentences. The pendulum may be swinging back a little- the country is becoming more liberal- but the war goes on.

That’s essentially all politics, and doesn’t tell you anything specifically that modern liberal Christians believe about crime and punishment, and why. I’ll get to that in Part II.

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A Theology Rundown from My Nationalist Pony

My Nationalist Pony is an interesting character who uses the little girls’ cartoon as a launching point for discussing nationalist ideas. He is a sort of Calvinist, I think, but here he gives a summary of some of his beliefs. In general I think he is very insightful, but I disagree on one point.

The idea of a Creator God who is not all-powerful is held by mainstream theologians (Greg Boyd for example) but I think the basic theodicy problem- God is all-powerful, all good, and evil exists- is not that hard to square. As I wrote in my political blog, God hates, and established a place for the people he hates before the beginning of time. Some of these people have no free will and are just part of God’s plan, others have free will and have freely rebelled against God.

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The Tyranny of Abusive Affliction

A Cry For Justice

The following article was written by one of our “Anon” ACFJ followers. (Followers? Members? Readers? Maybe we should just say “family”!).  Many thanks to her:

Affliction is something that everyone on this blog has gone through or is in the middle of right now. It is different than “trouble”. Affliction bears a different sting and is usually longer lasting and sometimes comes with more than one blow at a time. Affliction can tend to make us feel isolated and alone. It comes in different ways and varying packages. We know it here on this blog, as abuse.

Doing a little studying on this term proved beneficial and interesting and I would like to just share a few things with you, hoping that it brings some understanding and healing. We are all needing to get out our shovels and start unloading all the dirt that has buried us so we can…

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