justice.jpgThere must be a great deal of shock involved for those first-time offenders who find themselves in prison. There is the shock of realizing you’ve been caught and sentenced. There is the shock of the strip search and the first night in a terrifying place. And then, for some, there is the shock of being released after only a short period of prison time has passed.

A new form of “disciplinary” action has been approved for Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana that involves quick probation time for first-time offenders. “Shock Probation,” as it is called, is an attempt to scare people straight by way of the court system. A New York Times piece summarizes it as follows:

“For many a first offender, the worst part of prison comes in those shocking first days behind bars. Stunned by the strip search on entering, the frightening, unfamiliar vastness of the prison and the long incarceration stretching ahead, the new inmate is overwhelmed. On the theory that the first taste of prison may have at least as much curative effect as the full dose, a few states, including Indiana and Ohio, have quietly been practicing what they call ‘shock probation.'”

After serving only 30 or 60 days of their sentence an inmate can be released with the hope that they are thoroughly reformed. The results have been as “shocking” as anything else, proving to be rather effective in both Ohio and Kentucky. What shocks me, however, has nothing to do with the results of the project but its lack of interest in justice. This probationary method only further reveals the shift in our culture – which happened a long time ago it seems – from justice to reform. We are no longer a culture interested in justice, in making people pay their dues and debts. But we are now a society interested in second chances, and third chances even. On the surface this sounds like a good thing, but I’d like to argue that it is not.

When a society shifts away from the necessity for justice to an interest in second chances we do not get less crime, but more. When a man knows that selling heroine can get him 30 days in prison and then a possible release date he’s a little less hesitant than he was when he thought the sentence was more severe. Fighting and debates over the death penalty, and now this brand of probation reveal a nation that is soft of crime and big on cheap reform. I am not just shocked by this lack of justice, I am appalled by it. And I should be, for the Bible holds that it is the government’s job to uphold justice (see Romans 13).

Where is the justice in this case? It walks out the prison gates along with the criminal. And as the two leave one smiles, and the other dies.

1 Comment

  1. The shift from justice to reform in our judiciary is certainly an interesting topic. I think one might easily tie it to the religious America of the 19th century.

    This was the era of the social gospel and revivalism and the burgeoning interest in that kind of individualism and pietism that spawned the many splinters of the fundamentalist movements that ruled America’s cultural religion well into the 1960s and still shows its influence today. I think Americans got so used to hearing that Jesus was about second chances and reform that such has slipped well into our cultural subconsciousness. If religion is good and religion is about reform, then the judiciary is good if it is about reform as well. Conversely, justice is the province of the Old Testament God in all his wrath and fury, not of Jesus and his mercy and offer of a second chance at life. A chance to be good.

    Of course these thought processes are all subconscious, but I think they can be traced.

    One thing about your article that I’m not so sure about is that at the end, your push for justice seems pretty wholly pragmatic. Your reason to not support reformation over justice is that reformation doesn’t “work.” Ignoring that you’ve already said that the shock reformation idea is “proving to be rather effective in both Ohio and Kentucky,” you set up an argument that justice is better than reform for presumably biblical reasons but then sidestep those reasons to lean on this more utilitarian track. It just didn’t flow for me. You do offer a single note of support when you mention passingly Romans 13, but I think your argument deserves more.

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