I've just been reading Charles Colson's book "Restorative Justice", which is a thoughtful book on the penal system and origins/solutions to crime. Interestingly, he critiques both right and left for failing to properly deal with crime. The Right have seen harsh sentencing/incarceration as a solution to crime. But Colson argues that this approach views crime as a rational choice based on estimates of future happiness/displeasure (i.e. threat of imprisonment deters crime). He argues that this is basically utilitarianism and that it's shown to be inadequate by the re-incarceration rates (70-80%). It fails to understand the real issue of personal sin and evil that lies behind crime. The Left, on the other hand, externalize the causes of crime into social ills - poverty, racism, mental imbalance. They thus rob the individual of moral responsibility and view crime as a sickness. Incarceration here is for the purpose of rehabilitation. He quotes CS Lewis's famous essay on how this ultimately leads to tyranny. The similarity, however, between Right and Left in their view of crime is that we have to build more prisons! To what extent this is true now, I am unsure, but it has been the case historically.
I think Colson's critique is good and interesting, but it also left me dissatisfied. For, even the notion of sin is not really a sufficient explanation of crime. It explains evil in general, but not crime in the particular. The burning question is: why do some people sin in these ways? What leads some people to kill and others not to? Given that we're all sinners, why does our sin look different? It seems to me that a whole number of explanations have to be used in this scenario, but social evil is probably the most significant. The less educated, the poor, ethnic minorities are all over-represented in prisons. This must be connected to certain social factors. While I think that externalizing the cause of crime is wrong, social/psychological factors are undoubtedly an important context for the origins of certain kinds of crime. External, social factors do not make me a sinner, but they may serve to exacerbate my sin in certain directions.
Some of the problem with Colson's reasoning, in my opinion, has to do with the common understandings of sin as only a personal, individual thing - and not also a social thing. But surely, theologically, we can say 3 things simultaneously: 1. I am sinner responsible for myself 2. I am sinned against as a victim 3. I participate in a whole number of social sins (e.g. environmental destruction) that cannot be easily reduced to my individual decisions. The person that I am is wrapped up with all these different levels of sin. So, any analysis will need to maintain all of them at the same time or it will fail to deal with Biblical, psychological and social realities. Thus, any explanation of crime must take seriously every one of these levels of sin and not simply reduce crime to an issue of personal evil and corruption. It would be interesting, for example, to look at how the OT ideas of corporate responsibility for an individual's sin was reflected in the way the community dealt with. Justice should, therefore, take into account the whole context of someone's life and not reduce it to one thing.