A Simple Way to Reduce the Prison Population

An article by Kevin Johnson that appeared on the front page of USA Today reports that “More than half a dozen states are reclassifying a range of property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, a change that could spare prison terms for minor offenses and save states jail and prosecution costs.”1 The article does not say if the thieves have to pay their victims back for the theft or damage done to their property.

Many of this nation’s earliest settlers paid for their passage as indentured servants. A thief who was unable to make restitution for a property crime could be sold into servitude for his theft (Ex. 22:3b). Property crimes are best paid for by restitution, and when this is not possible, working off a debt is the next best thing. Chuck Colon, president of Prison Fellowship who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for attempting to defame Pentagon Papers defendant Daniel Ellsberg and served seven months of a one-to-three year sentence in the federal Maxwell Prison in Alabama, offers an interesting perspective on the topic of restitution:

Recently I addressed the Texas legislature. . . . I told them that the only answer to the crime problem is to take nonviolent criminals out of our prisons and make them pay back their victims with restitution. This is how we can solve the prison crowding problem.

The amazing thing was that afterwards they came up to me one after another and said things like, “That’s a tremendous idea. Why hasn’t anyone thought of that?” I had the privilege of saying to them, “Read Exodus 22. It is only what God said to Moses on Mount Sinai thousands of years ago.”2

The Bible requires restitution for most property crimes (Ex. 21:33–34; 22:3, 5, 6; 22:12). Restitution assures that only the thief pays. Those not associated with the crime are not taxed to punish the thief through an expensive prison system. If a person is not able to pay restitution, then indentured servitude is a lawful option.

Even after the abolition of slavery, indentured servitude was retained by the Constitution as a legitimate form of punishment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (Amendment XIII, Section 1).

Biblical 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 of or damage to borrowed items (22:14–15).

Voluntary restitution required the return of the item plus “one-fifth more” (Lev. 6:1–7). In most cases double restitution is required (Exodus 22:4, 7–9). Some crimes required payment of four (22:1; 2 Sam. 12:6) or five (22:1) times the loss or injury. Multiple restitution was mandated for items that had extended value. Sheep reproduce at a high rate and their wool can be made into clothing. To steal a sheep is to rob its owner of present and future productivity. An ox has similar value plus the added ability to pull plows and carts, essential functions in an agrarian society.

In all cases, biblical laws of restitution placed a limit on revenge and a burden on the lawbreaker. Roger Campbell writes in his book Justice Through Restitution, that in each of the biblical cases, the “result was that the victim was restored to a better position than before his loss and the lawbreaker was punished by having to make right his wrongs in a manner that cost more than his potential gain.”

Many Christians believe that laws governing restitution are relics of Old Testament law that no longer apply. The New Testament tells a different story. Zaccheus promised to make four-fold restitution because of his abuse of power as a “chief tax-gatherer” and being an oppressor of the poor (Luke 19:8). While restitution did not save him, it was evidence that he had truly repented in the way he abused his power. For this Jesus could say, “Today salvation has come to this house” (19:9). The Apostle Paul instructs the thief to “steal no longer; but rather . . . to labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need” (Eph. 4:28).

Laws of restitution have been abandoned by the courts largely because crimes are perceived as ultimately against the State. Campbell points out that “As the power of government increased, crimes were considered not so much as injury to the victim but as violations of the king’s peace. Laws were enacted that made it a misdemeanor for a victim to settle with an offender without bringing him to court. Instead of restoring the injured party to his condition before being wronged, fines now went into the government coffers and the attention of society turned to ingenious punishments for lawbreakers.”

Contrary to the humanistic theory of punishment, laws of restitution remind the criminal that ultimately he is responsible to God for his actions (Ps. 51:4), and his victims, created in God’s image, must be compensated in the manner prescribed by the “Judge of all the earth” (Gen. 18:25).

  1. Kevin Johnson, “Property Crimes Given a 2nd Look,” USA Today (October 31, 2011). []
  2. Charles Colson, “The Kingdom of God and Human Kingdoms,” James M. Boice, ed. Transforming Our World: A Call to Action (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1988), 154–155. []