Essay / Culture

Child Molesters and Restorative Justice

Interestingly and sometimes sadly, words change their meaning over time. “Large” used to mean, well, large! Today, if you order a large coffee, you get a small one instead. And if you really want a large meal, you have to ask for it to be super-sized! So if you use “large” you will be misunderstood, and if you want people to understand you as meaning what “large” used to mean, you must select a new word. This shift in the meaning of “large” is amusing, but the change in the meaning of other words such as “love” or “marriage” is no laughing matter. Consider “justice”. Justice is like world peace—everyone’s for it but it’s pretty difficult to nail down exactly what it means.

And it doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Limiting ourselves to criminal justice (and setting aside, say, economic justice), there’s a new kid on the block—“restorative justice”—that is attractive at first glance, but upon closer inspection, is revealed as the dangerous fraud it really is. Restorative justice is fundamentally the idea that when a crime is committed, e.g., rape, child molestation, there is an equal, or nearly equal, obligation to achieve healing for the perpetrator in addition to the victim. On the surface, we’re all for healing like we are all for world peace. But the devil is in the details, and before we can evaluate restorative justice, we must understand those details. And to do that, a brief history lesson is in order.

Until the 1950’s, there were four aspects of and goals for criminal justice: punishment, deterrence, protection of society, and rehabilitation. Here are three crucial points about the list. (1) Only the first one (punishment) requires taking the crime as intrinsically evil. It looks back in time at the crime, sees the balance of good and evil in the universe as disturbed, and seeks to right those scales and punish evil simply because it is evil and not because punishment would bring about good future benefits to society (or victims). Punishment is unrelated to revenge whose presence or absence is irrelevant to the appropriateness of the punishment.

The other three look to the future, not the past, they do not require taking the crime as evil, and they focus solely on correcting future effects of similar actions (deterring future rapes, protecting future victims from the rapist, trying to rehabilitate the rapist so he won’t rape again) rather on punishing the evil of a past action. Note that while deterrence, protection and rehabilitation are consistent with viewing the past action as intrinsically evil, they do not require this stance and, in fact, are neutral about the rightness or wrongness of the past action. All they require is that the past action produced harmful effects, not that the past action was wrong in and of itself irrespective of its effects.

(2) Only the first one (punishment) requires that human beings have free will necessary for moral praise, blame, and responsibility. You can engage in deterrence, protection and rehabilitation (i.e., behavior modification) with a rogue dog without assuming that the dog’s actions were freely done. But you cannot consistently punish someone without assuming the actor was free and, therefore, responsible.

(3) Traditional rehabilitation is the closest of the four to restorative justice, but in fact, it is quite different. Traditional rehabilitation is motivated by the assumption that the criminal is defective and needs correction and change. The language of deficiency and deviancy is associated with rehabilitation. Not so with restorative justice. It is motivated by tolerance, an unwillingness to judge, compassion, empathy for the criminal (for example, his sad childhood). The language of restorative justice is therapeutic and steeped with empathy.

All four of the traditional notions are legitimate, but today, secular progressives no longer believe in punishment, and rehabilitation has morphed into restorative justice. Here’s why. With the loss of a Judeo-Christian worldview in which free will and objective evil make sense, in its place we have the emergence of naturalism, Darwinian evolution and a culture in which we are reduced to our brains. The result: Human beings are now seen as determined by their brain chemistry, their genes and their environment. Free will is gone. And with the rise of tolerance and moral relativism, the difference between objective good and evil is hard to justify. Thus, the two essential requirements for punishment (free will, intrinsic evil) no longer make sense to secular progressives, and punishment has gone the way of the dodo. In its place, the last three notions (deterrence, protection, rehabilitation) are severed from good and evil and are solely utilitarian means to sustain what cultural elites believe the social order should be. Sounds like the former Soviet Union, doesn’t it?

And with the emergence of empty tolerance and a therapeutic culture, rehabilitation has lost is social stigma and is now an expression of compassion towards the criminal. The result: Secular progressive states like Vermont reject Jessica’s law, give child molesters light “sentences” and are so concerned with compassion that the children and other victims are lost from sight. Of course, if God is really dead, this slide is inevitable. It is no accident that as America grows more secular, our sense of justice draws closer to atheistic regimes such as classic communist states. I have analyzed these issues more deeply in my recent book Kingdom Triangle (Zondervan). I’ll let you figure out the parallel for why some folks can’t stomach war any more. (Hint: If there’s really no longer something worth living for, then there isn’t something worth dying for and if there is no objective difference between good and evil, and we don’t have free will, well, ….restoration, anyone?”)

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