Saturday, February 28, 2009

Punishment as Deterrence: Dt 17:12-13

"The man who acts presumptuously by not listening to the priest who stands there to serve the Lord your God, nor to the judge, that man shall die; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel. Then all the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again." (Deuteronomy 17:12-13)
The Hebrew word here for "presumptuously" means "arrogant". It refers to one who arrogantly and presumptuously refuses to obey the law, knowing full well the demands it places on him or her.

There are many purposes for the use of punishment in the establishment of justice, such as incarceration to protect the public, the reform of the offender, and the exaction of a punitive debt. In this scripture, God identifies another purpose for punishment: deterrence. Among its other purposes, punishment is designed to deter others who would be tempted to commit the same offense against the law. For punishment to properly operate as a deterrence, two things are necessary.

Punishment must be public. "Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning." (1 Tim 5:19-20) This does not mean that executions should be televised or that public floggings should return to the public square, rather simply that justice should not be practiced in private and/or hidden from the public eye. In many modern societies today the media provides this service; providing public "access" to the society's judicial system and process. If the public cannot "view" the the wheels of justice as they turn, then its process and punishment will offer little or no deterrence to transgressions of the law.

Punishment must be timely. "Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil." (Ecclesiastes 8:11) For punishment to offer deterrence, a society's citizens must perceive that it is the inevitable and timely consequence for transgressions. When judgment is delayed, then its value as a deterrence is diminished. Even in the case of capital punishment, where the time between crime and execution can sometimes be over ten years, capital punishment looses its value as a deterrence. Punishment must not only be certain, but it must also be foreseeable.

David Robison

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