Prison or Restitution
The criminal justice system practiced in most of the world is based on sentencing people to prison rather than paying restitution. Civil cases usually include fines and restitution payments, but these are often left unpaid, so victims of crime find it difficult to obtain justice.
When men are sentenced to prison, they are unable to pay their victims, because they cannot do meaningful work that might earn the money to pay restitution. Prison work benefits the stockholders of the private prisons only. Neither the inmates nor the victims of crime are well served by the current system.
The problem is that punishment is not the same as justice, at least not according to biblical definitions. When the goal is punishment, rather than justice, the system departs from true biblical justice.
The Kingdom of God set forth in the Bible provides a much better system of justice. Unfortunately, most people misunderstand the idea of “biblical justice,” thinking it is harsh and unreasonable, when, in fact, it is far more merciful than the modern prison system.
The Biblical Solution
The law of God is founded on the principle that justice has not been done until full restitution has been paid to all the victims of injustice. In other words, the lawful order must be restored, rather than create new injustices to try to balance or patch up the old ones.
Punishing the lawbreaker is not the goal. The goal is for the lawbreaker to repay his victim for his losses. If he does not have sufficient resources to do this, he is to be put on a work program until restitution has been paid.
Work, not prison, is the answer.
The basic guideline for handling property crime is defined in Exodus 22:1-4. The first verse says,
“If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.”
In those days an ox was a man’s tractor, representing the tools of a man’s trade. Stealing his tools requires more restitution, because it prevents the victim from working and earning a living. For this reason, God requires five-fold restitution. But for ordinary theft, four-fold restitution is sufficient. Verse 4 adds,
“If what he stole is actually found alive in his possession, whether an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double.”
So we see that four-fold restitution applies only if the stolen item cannot be returned “alive” or intact. If the stolen item can be restored, then restitution is only double. Verse 3 says that if the thief has insufficient assets to pay the restitution owed, he is to be “sold for his theft.”
This was very different from the common law of Babylon in biblical days. Their law read this way:
“If a man has stolen ox or sheep or ass or pig or ship, whether from the temple or the palace, he shall pay 30-fold. If from a poor man, he shall render 10-fold. If the thief has not wherewith the pay, he shall be put to death.”
In other words, if a man stole from the rich, he had to repay 30 times the value of the item stolen. But if he stole from a poor man, he only owed 10 times its value. That alone was unjust, because it differentiated between classes of people, creating a system of unequal justice.
In those days a 30-fold restitution requirement was usually impossible, and so the thief was then put to death. God’s law, however, dispenses equal justice for all, and the penalty was not to exceed 5-fold restitution. If he could not pay, he had to work to pay the debt.
Biblical slavery is not like the kind of slavery that has been practiced in the world since the beginning of time. Biblical slaves have the right to be treated with respect and with dignity. Slave owners do not have the right of life and death over their slaves.
In fact, if a slave owner abuses his slave, he must set him free. Exodus 21:26, 27 says,
“If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.”
Slaves were also supposed to be released during the Sabbath year, giving them a one-year vacation. We read in Exodus 21:2,
“If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment.”
Of course, if he still owed more on his debt, he was to return the following year to continue working off his debt. Debts were not actually canceled until the Year of Jubilee, which occurred every seven Sabbath years (the 50th year).
From a New Covenant perspective, the purpose of slavery is to allow a redeemer to pay the debt of the debtor. If the debtor owes, on account of some sin, the new master is responsible to train the sinner in the ways of righteousness and to teach him how to labor lawfully.
A master who is motivated by love will seek the good of the slave, rather than merely use him for his own gain. The overall purpose of the judgments of God is to bring a sinner to repentance (change of mind, lifestyle, and behavior) so that he may have unhindered fellowship with God and man.
So Isaiah 26:9 tells us,
“At night my soul longs for Thee, indeed, my spirit within me seeks Thee diligently; for when the earth experiences Thy judgments, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.”
God’s judgment, then, is designed by the God of love to restore all men to a place of fellowship with Him. It is not designed to destroy him, but to save him, and God is very passionate about this.
Biblical Court Procedure
Let’s say that a thief stole $30,000 and that he was caught, tried, convicted, and sentenced to repay his victim $60,000. Let us say also that he could not pay the debt. What then?
The judge would then auction the thief to the highest bidder. The thief would then have to work for his master for a specified amount of time according to the value of his labor.
One bidder might say, “He looks fit enough to work in my field; I will pay his debt if he works for me for 3 years.”
Another bidder might say, “He can drive my truck; I will pay his debt if he works for me for 2½ years.”
Another bidder might say, “He has computer skills; I will pay his debt if he programs my computers for just one year.”
The judge then makes the final bidder responsible to pay the debt of the thief, and in exchange, the thief must work for a year programming computers for the bidder. The thief does not have a choice here. It is a court-ordered work release program.
Some might object, saying, “What is to prevent the thief from running away or refusing to pay?” The answer is in Deut. 17:11, 12, where we are told that if anyone refuses to comply with the court order, he was to be put to death for contempt of court. The law is merciful only to those who submit to the judgment of God. Society has the right to be defended from those who refuse to repent.
For this reason, it is not likely that a man will try to escape from his work release program. Neither is it necessary to hire armed guards or to buy expensive security systems to force compliance.
Of course, keep in mind that the Law of Victim’s Rights gives all victims the right to press charges or to forgive the one who has wronged him. If a slave runs away and is caught, the slave master has the right to forgive him.
But if the thief is truly unrepentant, he also has the right to press charges, and the judge would then order him to be executed. The judge cannot forgive; he can only uphold the rights of the victims. Only victims are given the right to forgive.
The Advantage of Repentance
Suppose a thief steals some property but later repents. What should he do? Is there any advantage in repenting for committing a perfect crime? Yes, for Lev. 6:2-5 says,
“When a person sins… and deceives his companion in regard to a deposit or a security entrusted to him, or through robbery… that he shall restore what he took by robbery… and add to it one-fifth more.”
This is restated in Numbers 5:7,
“then he shall confess his sins which he has committed, and he shall make restitution in full for his wrong, and add to it one-fifth of it, and give it to him whom he has wronged.”
In other words, he is to restore what he stole and add one-fifth its value by way of restitution. God reduces the restitution payment down to a mere 20% instead of double, four-fold, or five-fold.
His restitution penalty is reduced down to the level of a tithe that is redeemed. In the law of tithing (Kingdom taxes), men owed God a tenth of what they produced from nature (God’s labor). But if they wanted to keep the wheat or sheep or lumber or whatever, they could redeem it and pay God an extra 20% of its value. We read of this in Lev. 27:13,
“But if he should ever wish to redeem it (tithe), then he shall add one-fifth of it to your valuation.”
So if a thief repents, his liability for theft is reduced to the level of redeeming a tithe. In both cases, he must add just one-fifth of its value.
Forgiveness is the Goal
The current “justice” system seldom restores the losses that the victim suffered. The result is that society never really forgives him. It keeps a record of his sins until the day he dies. It does not genuinely seek to remove the curse of the law or to restore the sinner fully.
In the Bible, there is no such class of people known as ex-convicts. The purpose of God’s judgment is to obtain full forgiveness though restitution, not to punish or inflict continuous pain upon the lawbreaker. When the judgment of the law has run its course, the sinner is to be fully restored and his sin is to be expunged from God’s records and forgotten.