Is Our Criminal Justice System Broken?

The Atlantic asks this question in a short video interview of law enforcement professionals, academics, and people on the receiving end of enforcement. While the question is broad, the responses focus on two key components of the system: policing and incarceration.

The arguments among criminal justice professionals are essentially that policing is over-militarized and that longer incarceration sentences do not make sense if the goal of the system is restorative justice — the idea that rather than strictly punishing an offender, we should seek to "restore" and rehabilitate him or her to behave in accordance with society's standards.

The Chicken or the Egg?

Of course, the question becomes, which came first — the chicken or the egg? Are we over-policing and over-charging (especially among minorities) or are police responding to a rise in crime that the system hasn't been able to effectively rehabilitate?

Both issues are certainly problematic. As a former district attorney, I saw the over-charging and over-policing from the inside; all “defendants” were presumed guilty by the very people in the system who take an oath to do “whatsoever justice requires.”

Once a person is charged, the large, bulky, mechanical government system takes over and each “defendant” is faceless — just a name and number on the daily docket for the state to deal with in the sterile environment of the court system. Using a clinical and impersonal network of “criminal justice professionals,” the State has few resources to actually administer justice.

There are really only two options: probation or prison. Probation is deemed too lenient for most major felonies. So once a person has been over-policed and over-charged, they are over-adjudicated and thus over-incarcerated.

The final response in The Atlantic video hit on this exact tension: "The system is working as intended. It's only broken to the extent that our society is broken,” said Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic.

The Reality of Restoration

Beyond the politics and major bureaucracy within the criminal justice system, the State is entirely ill equipped to deal with actual restoration.

Even assuming a person gets a probation sentence, he or she simply goes through a checklist of “restoration” depending on the particular offense:

  • For alcohol offenses, her sobriety is monitored and she attends classes on how to consume responsibly.
  • For domestic violence, he goes to“Making Better Choices” classes.
  • For sex offenses, even more classes that teach “healthy sexual expression” and how to “deal with” sexual impulses.

If you are lucky enough to make it through your checklist, having sat through the required classes and calling in to your probation officer as required, you’ll be stamped “rehabilitated” until you’re over-charged the next time.

Defining Restoration

Neither probation nor sheer force of prison incarceration actually restores meaningfully because neither option deals with a person’s heart issues or worldview. What is restoration really? The Bible tells us that true restoration can only come through repentance, forgiveness, and a saving knowledge of Christ.

“Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.

So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” 2 Corinthians 5:14-17

Until our system acknowledges the only source of true restoration, our criminal justice system cannot effectively rehabilitate.

Our criminal justice system currently reflects a secular, godless society. Over-policing and over-incarceration are merely symptoms of the malignance that has overrun society.

Now What?

It is true that our system is broken because our society is broken.

But there are some practical things we should be doing to advance the ministry of restoration. God has instructed us how to live biblically within a broken world: 

1. Pray. (Philippians 4:6-7, James 5:16)

Pray for our society, our criminal justice professionals, our churches, and our own hearts for true biblical restoration. Pray for the millions of people who daily go through the system and for Christians to take an increasing role to minister and provide biblical solutions. 

2. Seek godly counsel. (Psalm 1:1, John 17:17, Proverbs 3:5-6)

We shouldn’t be surprised that a secular, broken society does not have the answers. When dealing with questions of personal brokenness, we must seek godly, biblical counsel. Behavioral modification isn’t the solution; only the biblical worldview can address heart changes. We should be wise in choosing of whom we seek counsel and churches must be wise in teaching biblical principles rather than borrowing from secular philosophy. Nothing short of repentance and forgiveness will ever generate true reconciliation and restoration. 

3. Practice biblical restoration within your sphere of influence. (2 Corinthians 10:5, 1 John 2:15-17, Matthew 18)

Don’t be satisfied with obtaining secular advice on spiritual heart problems, even from other Christians — or encouraging others to do so. Take every thought captive. Whether you are involved in the criminal justice system or another segment of society, every Christian should practice biblical repentance, forgiveness, and restoration while encouraging others to also.

4. Be involved in the Great Commission. (Matthew 28:19-20; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Matthew 5:16)

We can’t abdicate our responsibility to criminal justice professionals. Christians are called to go into the world and teach God’s truth. Whatever your vocation and passion, be a full-time teaching Christian and fulfill the Great Commission where you are at. 

5. Teach truth in love. (Ephesians 4:15, 1 Timothy 4:11-16)

The solution to brokenness is not a secular government program. Churches and individual Christians must be the voice within a broken society and call our nation to repentance, forgiveness, and restoration, seeking our Savior as the only solution to changing lives. Speak truth in love.