Why my faith led me away from ‘tough on crime’

Benjamin Perrin would like to see the abolition of traditional prisons in favour of healing and rehabilitation centres. Unsplash image

Many conservative politicians in Canada and the United States have long championed what they term as ‘tough on crime’ policies.

This approach, characterized by more police, harsher punishment and greater incarceration (including discredited mandatory minimum penalties) has been criticized for its ineffectiveness and high cost.

Often these same politicians court a loyal following of Christian voters. Yet I have become convinced that “tough on crime” is not just bad policy, I also see it as inconsistent with my faith as a follower of Jesus.

During my own research into the criminal justice system, I spoke with many people who were incarcerated as well as survivors of crime. Their insights, a significant body of research and my faith convinced me that we need a different approach.

Rather than punitive approaches that I used to support, I now advocate for a new transformative justice vision that instead seeks to transform the harm and trauma in our society, rather than continue to transmit it.

What is transformative justice? Its hallmarks include preventing childhood trauma; public health approaches to substances, mental health, poverty and homelessness; holistic support for people who were harmed and caused them harm; 24/7 non-police mobile crisis response teams; restorative justice; abolition of traditional prisons in favour of healing and rehabilitation centres; and Indigenous-led justice approaches.

A transformative vision – rather than ‘tough on crime’ – resonates with my faith in Jesus Christ, rooted in mercy, forgiveness, restoration and compassion.

Jesus repeatedly appeals for us to be merciful to one another, saying “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7), and to forgive one another: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Matthew 6:12)

Jesus himself forgave the “woman caught in adultery” in John 8:1-11 – a capital offence at one time in Jewish law. When everyone else wanted to stone her, Jesus said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” – and one by one they left. It is a powerful message that none of us is perfect, and a warning against having a hard, condemning heart.

Rather than treat incarcerated people with disdain and seek harsh treatment for them, Jesus instead encourages us to visit them in prison (Matthew 25:36). Jesus himself was someone who was wrongfully convicted and executed by an occupying power.

Jesus also pleads with us to try and reconcile our interpersonal conflicts informally and restore relationships, rather than rushing to court, indicative of a more restorative approach to redressing wrongs: “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way.” (Matthew 5:25).

Beyond what Jesus said and how he acted, his sacrificial death on the cross and resurrection started a revolution that is still ongoing. It should be seen in changed hearts and new lives of each person who puts their trust in him.

Among other things, for me it meant that I started to see myself as no better and no worse before God than someone who is a convicted criminal, even someone guilty of heinous crimes. The Bible says we have all fallen short of God’s standards, yet we are all deeply loved by God and can receive his free gift of forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ, turning from our own way to follow him. Indeed, the Bible teaches that no one is beyond redemption.

In Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores, Dominque DuBois Gilliard makes the theological and policy case against the war on drugs, mass incarceration and other ‘tough on crime’ policies. It’s a compelling read. Gillard concludes: “We serve a God whose final word is not retribution but restoration, who desires liberation, reconciliation and reintegration for those behind bars.”

Central to the Christian faith is the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, regardless of their past mistakes or transgressions. Christians are called to emulate the love and forgiveness that God extends to all humanity. This includes people who have been convicted of crimes and are serving time in prison. Rather than condemning them, we are called to offer them hope, support and opportunities for redemption.

We see this ethic reflected in Christian reformers like William Booth (who founded the Salvation Army) as well as John Howard and Elizabeth Fry (after whom the leading non-profit organizations supporting incarcerated people in Canada are named).

At the heart of transformative justice is the belief in the possibility of rehabilitation and transformation.

Instead of focusing solely on punishment, this approach seeks to address the root causes of crime and offer individuals the resources and support they need to rebuild their lives. This includes providing access to education, job training, mental health services and substance abuse treatment.

Countries that have tried this approach – focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment – have seen outstanding success.

Norway’s recidivism rate went from around 60 – 70 percent of people reoffending after release from prison to just 20 percent after they overhauled their system to focus on providing support to people who were separated from society for the harm they caused. In other words, this focus on healing made society safer.

Furthermore, transformative justice recognizes the importance of addressing systemic issues such as poverty, inequality and discrimination, which often contribute to cycles of victimization, crime and incarceration.

Jesus spoke frequently about the importance of helping the poor and marginalized in our society, even as he fed the masses while he himself had no home during his years in ministry.

Claiming to have a faith in Jesus without putting it into action is no faith at all. As James 2:15-17 says:

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

We also need to do much more to help people who are victims of crime. In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus teaches us to care for, and help, those in need – even when they’re different from us, and it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient.

The Good Samaritan responded with kindness and generosity for someone he didn’t even know. All too often our justice system treats victims of crime in ways that cause them even greater harm. They deserve our support and to be included, if they wish, in restorative justice opportunities with those who harmed them.

Benjamin Perrin

While some may view punitive measures as a means of upholding law and order, we must question whether these approaches are effective and, for Christians, whether they actually align with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Followers of Jesus are called to be peacemakers and agents of reconciliation, working towards a society where justice is tempered with mercy and compassion.

By embracing mercy, forgiveness and compassion, we can work towards building a more just and compassionate society for everyone.

Benjamin Perrin is the author of the bestselling book, Indictment: The Criminal Justice System on Trial (University of Toronto Press, 2023).

He has written this comment as a member of The Bell: Diverse Christian Voices in Vancouver.

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1 comment for “Why my faith led me away from ‘tough on crime’

  1. There are models, particularly from Brazil, on how restorative justice through Christian love is extremely effective. It is not that offenders are simply released back into the community to continue to perpetrate their criminal behaviour, but the system of incarceration is truly aimed at restoration.

    These models show that when prisoners are treated with dignity and even love, then there is hope for restoration and the rates of recidivism are greatly reduced. In these models, prisons or sections of prisons are run by Christians where faith, discipline and love are key to restoration.



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