The ancient criminal code of Israel, given by God through Moses, is remarkable in that there was no provision for incarceration. The penalties for crimes against persons ranged from physical punishment in cases of assault up to capital punishment in cases of murder and kidnapping.
The penalty for crimes against property was restitution plus a stiff penalty, as recorded in Exodus 21:33-22:14. The restitution ranged from making an owner whole for the death of one of his animals, or the destruction of his fields or vineyards through fire, to a 400% penalty for a stolen sheep, and 500% for a stolen ox. The castle doctrine is even enshrined - if a thief died at the hands of a homeowner while trying to pull off a heist under cover of darkness, there was “no bloodguilt” (Exodus 22:2).
The closest Israel got to incarceration was its system of cities of refuge, but these existed only to provide protective custody for accused murderers until they could get their day in court.
So while our penal system is identified almost entirely with being locked up behind bars, Israel had a system that provided justice without the phenomenal expense of a system of jails and prisons. According to CBS News, Americans spend a stupendous $80 billion a year on incarceration. Israel’s budget was $0.
But sanity is beginning to prevail in America’s system of justice, at least regarding crimes against property. According to a story in the Washington Times, Hawaii has a model restitution program that experts hope other states will imitate. The state increased collections from offenders by 70 percent from 2013 to 2016 and wound up making 40% more disbursements to victims.
The state collected nearly $367,000 from inmates and parolees in 2016 and jumped collections to $587,000 in 2017. The number of payments made by offenders has jumped ten-fold, from 253 payments in 2010 to nearly 2500 in 2016.
And these totals do not include about $1.2 million collected since 2012 in 10 large one-time payments, mostly from theft and money-laundering cases. The director of the federal Office for Victims of Crime, Darlene Hutchinson, said, “I love what they’re doing in Hawaii, and I hope that a lot of us can replicate that.”
Expecting criminals to make restitution to their victims is inherently just and fair, and makes perfect sense if the goal is justice. And Anne Seymour, national crime victim advocate and consultant to Pew Charitable Trust, says to those who don’t think government can actually collect from criminals, “When people say you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip, I’ll tell them to go to Hawaii, because look at the (restitution results). They’re just amazing.”
So programs of restitution are biblical and they can be made to work. What’s not to like?
That leaves just one question: if this principle of justice has been embedded in the Scriptures for 3400 years, what took you so long?