Is punishment all bad?
Professor Paul Redekop – unrelated to this reviewer – has written a challenging book with a novel thesis: “The practice of punishment cannot be justified on moral, religious, or utilitarian grounds. Just as we long ago abandoned other forms of ritual sacrifice, so we now [need] to do the same with punishment. Everywhere that it was used, it was clear that punishment did more harm than good. It was again and again proven to be futile at best and terribly harmful at worst, whether it was employed in the justice system, in the family, in schools, or anywhere else.”
This rejection of all punishment, no matter by whom or for what reason, is unqualified. “We continue to punish and coerce, not for any good reason, but out of habit and ignorance.”
What’s the alternative? A “comprehensive restorative justice system must replace the system of retributive justice.” Redekop makes a strong case for restorative justice but weakens his cause by claiming too much for it. Punishment is not primarily the cause of evil but a response to evil.
Numerous exaggerations diminish the argument. For example: “Even moderate punishment leads to an increased likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior, such as drug and alcohol abuse.” I recall the 50 or so pupils who attended a one-room rural school with me in Saskatchewan. Occasional, moderate punishments, rarely even corporal, contributed to our training. I cannot identify even one case of aggressive behaviour ensuing.
We also read, “there is no evidence that [deterrence] has ever ‘worked.’” From observation and personal experience as child, educator, and parent, I can cite many examples when it has.
Wrong statements also weaken the author’s case. “With punishment we move from a condemnation of the act to a denunciation of the person who has committed it.” In most situations that’s not true.
Given the author’s definition of relationship as involving community and typically an offender’s knowledge of the victim, his definition of crime as “harm done in a relationship” is faulty. No “relationship” is involved when counterfeit money is printed, when a plane is flown into a building, or when a stranger is robbed of his money.
The naive assertions are problematic. According to the author, every criminal is “just another flawed human being like the rest of us.” I would not put Paul Bernardo and Jack the Ripper in the same category as Mother Teresa or Billy Graham.
“Those who have done harm must take responsibility for the consequences of their actions and must help to undo the harm that has been caused.” They must repent and become accountable, Redekop asserts. But we know many criminals refuse to participate, repent, or become accountable.
Dubious assumptions startle the reader: criminals share the same value system as their victims; what works in some situations will work in all situations; God’s love and punishment are opposites; society cannot utilize both punishment and restoration; and God’s ethic does not include punishment. The last ignores the substitutionary role of Jesus’ atonement.
The reader detects inconsistency. Redekop wants to abolish all punishment but acknowledges that the state “has the primary responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens.”
He concedes that “sanctions may be employed for the purposes of containment, in the interests of the protection of victims and the broader community. This kind of sanction will of necessity restrict the liberty of the recipient in some way, causing suffering as a result.” Where I live we call that punishment by imprisonment!
Later, contradicting his central thesis, the author even concedes that “the penal system would therefore still be required.”
This seminal work is well organized and highly readable. The research is impressive. Although not always convincing, the argumentation is clear. Importantly, the author has correctly identified and effectively critiqued crucial shortcomings in current justice systems.
In sum, despite its weaknesses, this book is significant, partly because of its thesis but mostly because Redekop has exposed faulty assumptions and stretched our thinking. This timely study aptly illustrates that the line between profound, radical insight and naive idealism is, indeed, a fine – even a blurred – one.
By taking the argument for restorative justice further than virtually anyone else, Redekop has produced a major addition to the literature and significantly expanded the Christian agenda.