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.