Published in The Enterprise, 8-10-98

The Application of Religious Principles to Our Criminal Justice System

by Rocky Anderson

Nationally, we are imprisoning more of our citizens, per capita, than any other nation in the world. And the sentences are often absurd, and tragic – in many instances the product of politicians who pander to and exploit the worst fears and prejudices in our communities.

What could possibly justify the fact that more than 60% of inmates in federal penitentiaries are incarcerated because of non-violent drug-related offenses? And why are Utah legislators even considering the construction of new, expensive prison facilities when more than one-third of our prison population have never been convicted of a violent offense?

From what insanity – from what impulses as a people, a community and a nation – does this rage to punish derive? Unfortunately, it seems that much of what drives the craving for retribution is a smug self-satisfaction that others, who are not like us, must be punished for their transgressions – and that we are in a position to judge them and to punish them. In the face of the hard facts, however, those who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus or of other great religious leaders, but who do nothing to change our disastrous criminal “justice” system, must admit to the most flagrant hypocrisy.

Although there are inspirational exceptions, many of those who maintain an adherence to religious teachings are, by and large, not putting them into practice in our criminal justice system.

lama.jpgWho said that “rigor and seclusion will never do as much to reform the propensities of men as reason and friendship?” Who argued that not punishment, but reform, should be the underlying principle in dealing with offenders? And who proposed that “[p]enitentiaries be turned into seminaries of learning, where intelligence, like the angels of heaven, would banish such fragments of barbarism?” Was it the ACLU? Some modern-day radical reformist crackpot? Or, perhaps, a left-wing criminal defense lawyer? No, it was Joseph Smith. Yet, almost none of what he prescribed has been taken to heart in relation to Utah’s corrections system. How many of his followers currently advocate, or put into practice, “reason and friendship” toward those who break our criminal laws?

At a regional convention of the NAACP in Salt Lake City, Gordon Hinckley, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, recently spoke about the issue of criminal justice, stating:

  • “We cannot build jails and prisons in this nation fast enough to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of inmates whose numbers are constantly increasing. All of this, and much more becomes the great tragic waste of America. As you know all too well, very many of these people, given the right motivation and the right opportunity, could do something useful with their lives.”

President Hinckley is to be commended for addressing this crucial issue. But it will take far more than occasional words for Christ’s teachings to replace our brutal approach toward our brothers and sisters who have violated the law. It will require a commitment to compassion in the place of judgment; a striving for restoration instead of punishment; and a helping hand, rather than a raised fist.

Just as God did not call the “Ten Commandments” the “Ten Suggestions,” Jesus and other distinguished religious leaders meant for their teachings about empathy and compassion to be guidelines for daily living – not just niceties to be ritually repeated in our Sunday Schools or synagogues. If we have the will, we can apply religious and ethical principles to our criminal justice system in a way that comports, rather than conflicts, with the teachings of religious leaders. And, at the same time, we can satisfy our best and most noble instincts. As Sam Keen wrote in his extraordinary book, To Love and Be Loved, “[W]hen we dare to dream of a dwelling place that might satisfy our deepest longings, we imagine a community founded on justice and ruled by compassion and kindness.”

We can do far better – for those who offend against our laws, for crime victims, for taxpayers, and for our communities generally. Effective drug and alcohol prevention and treatment programs, rather than long, expensive prison sentences. Community-based jobs programs and restitution projects for non-violent offenders, rather than idle years spent in $35,000 per inmate per year prison facilities. And academic education, job training, and other programs that have been proven elsewhere to be effective in reducing recidivism and providing inmates the skills they will need upon their release to lead productive, law-abiding lives.

We can do it all, effectively, compassionately, and with love, by truly hearkening to the words of Jesus:

“Judge not that ye be not judged.”

“All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do you even to them.”

“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”