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March 28, 2012

"How Would Jesus Punish Drug Use?"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Huffington Post commentary authored by Molly Gill, who is the Director of Special Projects for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Here are some excerpts from a potent piece discussing the always interesting connections between religious convictions and criminal justice doctrine:

The first and only time I heard evangelical mega-figure Pat Robertson speak in public, he wasn't calling for the legalization of pot. I was 21, a junior at Oral Roberts University, playing endless rounds of "Pomp and Circumstance" on my viola with the school orchestra. Robertson was present to give the commencement address to that year's graduates.  I can't remember what he exhorted them to do, but I'm positive it didn't involve toking up.

Robertson still isn't spreading that message, but his recent comments about legalizing pot, the cruelty and irrationality of mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug crimes, and the expensive and failed War on Drugs are refreshing.  Our harsh mandatory prison terms for drug offenses are incompatible with Christian principles of justice.  This conviction -- and the faith I and Robertson share -- drove me first to law school and then to Washington, D.C. to work on criminal sentencing reform for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a secular organization.  I join Robertson in posing a question all evangelicals should be striving to answer:

How would Jesus want us to punish?

Most Christians would start with Exodus 21's command that "an eye for an eye" is the right approach.  Sadly, this verse has been cited to justify heartless vengeance in our criminal laws: "do the crime, do the time."  The verse isn't a license to punish, but a limitation on punishment: the time must fit the crime and not be excessive. Giving either less or more punishment than the crime or the offender deserves is an injustice....

Jesus turned the "eye for an eye" concept on its head in Matthew 5, when he said, "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." Anyone can hit back, but it takes real Christian love to show compassion to criminals -- in Jesus' words, to love our law-breaking neighbors as ourselves and to treat them as we would like to be treated....

Our lawmakers are to blame.  Too many Christian legislators wear their faith like a badge of honor and proclaim a belief in redemption and forgiveness, but vote for more mandatory minimum prison sentences in election years.  These lawmakers would do well to remember James 2:17: "Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."  (James 2:13 is another good reminder.  That verse tells believers to show others the same mercy they've received: "Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.  Mercy triumphs over judgment.")

The Book of James also teaches that a true mark of our faith is caring for widows and orphans. Every time we lock up a breadwinner, we create a widow.  Every time we incarcerate a parent, we create an orphan.  The Christian organization Prison Fellowship does wonders in recruiting the faithful to care for prisoners and their families, but it also urges legislators to reform the laws that are at the root of the problem. Both prison ministry and sentencing reform advocacy are essential.  Christians should support reforming mandatory sentencing laws that perpetuate an over-reliance on prisons and fail to deliver the compassion, services and opportunities for redemption that prisoners and their families need.

More leaders like Robertson should tell Congress to remove the thumb of mandatory minimum sentences from our scales of justice. Our judges need flexibility and discretion to require an eye for an eye -- nothing less and nothing more. They also need more compassionate, redemptive -- I daresay Christian -- sentencing options that treat offenders like the valuable children of God we all are.

Some related older and newer posts:

March 28, 2012 at 02:55 PM | Permalink


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The problem with these WWJD posts is that the bible can be used to justify anything. So while I understand the desire people have to share with others what motivates their behavior, it's rather unhelpful to sentencing policy because it inevitably turns a legal debate into a religious debate.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 28, 2012 3:07:44 PM

A smart friend of mine once told me that, when an article starts off with, "What would Jesus do about...........," it's time to read something else.

P.S. You really do have to roll your eyes when the pro-drug component is so desperate they invoke Pat Robertson. Who's next? Jimmy Swaggart?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 28, 2012 4:07:17 PM

How about Grover Norquist and Justice Kennedy?

Posted by: beth | Mar 28, 2012 9:40:55 PM

A smarter friend of mine said that when a story begins with "The DOJ said...", you had better hold your nose.

Follow the Hutaree case in Michigan (which I have been condemning for 2 years) to understand the truth about the DOJ "creating crimes." All that's lost is 24 months of many peoples lives.

No big deal, right Bill!

Posted by: albeed | Mar 28, 2012 9:48:29 PM

beth --

The principal item on the pro-drug agenda by far is the legalization of marijuana. I have never heard Justice Kennedy say he favors such a thing, and I don't believe he does. I might add that he voted with the majority in the Raich case and in Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative.

albeed --

Sometimes you can believe DOJ and sometimes you can't. If you take the view that things have been sliding downhill in recent years, you'll get no argument here.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 28, 2012 10:00:11 PM

Jesus would have condemned drug use as licentious behavior that distracted from one's relationship with God. I think he wouldn't have cared whether drugs were legal or illegal, because that would have been irrelevant to his core concern. He would have been appalled at the destruction wrought by the war on drugs, however, just as he would have been appalled at people who sell dangerous drugs. For instance, I'm guessing he'd have a few choice words for people who sell tobacco, and I doubt he'd be a fan of the big beer companies. His view of the thugs who run the illegal drug trade would be obvious.

So what?

Posted by: C.E. | Mar 28, 2012 10:37:01 PM

Oh Bill, you make me work so hard. I know in 2003 Kennedy cast the deciding vote in upholding California's three strikes law, but it had nothing to do with how he felt about the law. In the same year he testified to Congress that "mandatory minimums can produce harsh and unjust sentences. He also urged the elimination of all such laws.

At the ABA Association that same year he got a little religion. He called the failure of the legal profession to pay sufficient attention to corrections and prisons an abdication of responsibility. The subject is the concern of every member of our profession and of every citizen. This is your justice system; these are your prisons. The Gospels' promise of mitigation at judgement if one of your fellow citizens can say, "I was in prison, and ye came unto me," does not even contain an exemption for civil practitioners, or transactional lawyers, or for any other citizens.

He called the fact that our citizens are ten times more likely to be in prison than their European counterparts a disgrace, and said our resources are misspent.

Oh my gosh - he didn't have positive comments for prosecutors - also " I can accept neither the wisdom, the justice nor the necessity of mandatory minimums." "In all too many cases they are unjust."

He's gotten more entrenched in his position. At Pepperdine University Law School in 2010 Kennedy said that the three-strikes law sponsored by the correctional officer's union was "sick"

It's quite a conundrum. Justic Scalia complained to the Senate about too many federal drug prosecutions in 2011. Scalia blamed Congress for making federal crimes out of too many routine drug cases.

Posted by: beth | Mar 29, 2012 12:21:45 AM

Jails were not used in the Old Testament practice. "Jail" has no logical relation to true retributivism nor utilitarianism. Jail does not right a wrong. Jail doesn't fix a problem. Jail doesn't inflict the same type of punishment someone dishes (except maybe false imprisonment/kidnapping).

The first step to fixing this problem is to get rid of victimless crimes.

The second step is to get rid of "jail" or "prison" as a regular punishment method.

Posted by: Jaime | Mar 29, 2012 1:16:32 AM

The problem here is trying to apply Jesus' teachings to the government. The Bible is a book about our personal relationships/salvation and has little to do with government policy. For instance, the notion that the government needs to tax more to feed the poor is completely unbiblical. We are personally called to help the widows personally and through our churches, not the government. The apostles collected and supported the widows and orphans themselves (See Acts), they did not give the money to Caesar to distribute.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Mar 29, 2012 8:40:00 AM

Jaime stated: "The second step is to get rid of "jail" or "prison" as a regular punishment method."

And what would you do with a repeat child molester, armed robber, or wife beater?

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Mar 29, 2012 8:41:50 AM

"Jail doesn't inflict the same type of punishment someone dishes."

The post suggests a pure "eye for an eye" approach is not appropriate, so where does that take you? Punishment has various purposes. One is safety. You need to isolate certain people. It also is for deterrence. In this country, freedom is key. Restriction of freedom is a tool. It is not the only one, but it is one. It also is for rehabilitation. This requires the person to have less freedom of movement, to be there, such as to be there for a drug treatment or work release program. As to the OT, we don't live in a nomadic tribal world.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 29, 2012 10:03:46 AM

I think Daniel is somewhat correct but like the Constitution, there are certain general things that probably can be agreed upon as to what the Bible sets forth. For instance, if you are a Christian, it's hard to say "eye for an eye" or divorce or "throw the first stone" were Jesus' principles. He also doesn't seem to mind people drinking a bit of wine from time to time.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 29, 2012 10:06:08 AM

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