While we can probably all agree that the criminal justice system needs reform, recent budget-cutting initiatives in Florida and elsewhere have added to the influence of religious organizations and the programs they sponsor in correctional facilities (I wrote about a similar move with regard to public education here).
There are a number of dimensions to the Florida plan but those that interest me are the plans to “privatize” the system by turning even more of it over to “faith based” prison ministries and to reshape the system as whole with a model put forth over 40 years ago by none other than RJ Rushdoony, the founder of Christian Reconstructionism. Governor Rick Scott wants to move prisoners from government institutions to privately run facilities and increase the 4300 inmates already held within faith based programs by increasing the number of programs from four to six.
While inmates in these facilitates choose the faith based programs over other options, it’s not, as proponents like to argue, fair to say that they choose to be there. Opponents of the plans argue that inmates in faith based programs enjoy a number of perks and better facilities than other inmates. But whatever the case, Scott’s plan would turn more of the state’s obligation to run the criminal justice system over to religious organizations.
According to the St. Petersburg Times Scott’s proposal is part of a “growing national conservative movement known as Right on Crime, which argues that too many prisoners are locked up for nonviolent crimes or for technical violations of probation.”
Don’t be confused, these are “law and order conservatives” who believe in the death penalty; you can be sure they have not gone “soft on crime.” The argument is that non-violent offenders should make restitution to their victims rather than be incarcerated. Leaving, shall we say, other options, to deal with those who are not candidates for restitution. The website for Right on Crime says, “When a property crime or a violent crime occurs, the primary aggrieved party is the individual victim, not the government, and thus the compensation should go primarily to the individual victim, not the government.”
Now, wait. Where have I heard that before? Oh, I know. Way back in the late 1960s this was Rushdoony’s view (in the Foundations of Social Order). In his Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) he wrote:
God’s Law has no sentence of imprisonment but only restitution, God’s view of crime is that the act of crime is committed, not by a professional criminal, but a weaker man, who must restore the stolen goods plus at least an equal amount, the potentially habitual criminal is to be executed as soon as he gives plain evidence of this fact (Deuteronomy 21:18-21 – see also Proverbs 30:17).. …In Deuteronomy 19:21, the general law of justice is stated: the punishment must fit the crime; there must be a comparative restitution or death.
Or more recently Reconstructionist (and Tea Partier) Gary DeMar wrote that restitution is the Biblical way to deal with crime:
Restitution includes compensating a person for stolen or damaged property or physical harm done to someone. Restitution laws cover a variety of circumstances: assault (Exodus 21:18–19); bodily injury (21:26–27); liability (21:33–36); theft (22:1–4); property damage (22:5–6); irresponsibility (22:7–13); and the loss or damage of borrowed items (22:14–15).
Later in the article DeMar continues, “Instead of restoring the injured party to his condition before being wronged, fines now (go) into the government coffers and the attention of society turned to ingenious punishments for lawbreakers.” Both Rushdoony and DeMar argue that the notion that a criminal owes a debt to society rather than to his or her victim results from the rise of the “messianic state.”
Recent developments in Florida, under the guise of prison reform, are promoting a civil society increasingly regulated by religious organizations and conforming to Reconstructionists’ prescription for a Biblical society; this “prison reform” is but one more example of Rushdoony’s work making its way into political discourse and even public policy.