Mama’s Law

It's an election year, and as usual we're hearing a lot of rhetoric from politicians about the best way to fight crime. But maybe we're listening to the wrong people. Ken Breivik is Justice Fellowship's state director for South Carolina. Breivik recently wrote a commentary in which he suggests that we look to the real experts on criminal justice. "When talking about law enforcement," Breivik writes, " . . . criminal justice practitioners often say something like this: ‘When I was young, if I misbehaved, my Mama would . . .'" and then finish with a colorful description of the kind of justice Mama meted out. Breivik thought this was a little strange. These folks had "all the current facts and figures, charts and graphs," he recalls. "[And] yet [they] still referred to what I like to call ‘Mama's Law.'" Just for fun, Breivik decided to rethink our criminal justice system using the "Mama's Law" approach. First, Breivik writes, when he transgressed his mother's rules, his punishment was swift and certain. "After Mama ascertained my guilt," he says, ". . . I was given the opportunity to plead for the mercy of the court. . . . [And then] mama executed my punishment immediately." Second, Breivik says, "my mother had an arsenal of punishments at her disposal and assigned punishment based on the severity of my crime--extra chores, confinement to my room, and sometimes substantial pressures . . . to my glutimus maximus." Finally, Breivik says, "I had to apologize and make amends [for my crime.]" How does our criminal justice system stack up against "Mama's Law?" Not very well. First, Breivik's mama might have administered instant justice, but in the adult world, trials often occur more than a year after the crime was committed. This destroys the deterrent effect of punishment and postpones closure for the victim. Second, do states have an "arsenal of punishments" available, as Breivik's mama did? Some states do have alternative sentencing for non-violent criminals. But far too many states simply lock everyone up--check forgers and drug addicts along with rapists and murderers. Finally, what about making amends to crime victims? In South Carolina, where Breivik lives, restitution is ordered in a fraction of the cases where it is warranted--and it's an order offenders often ignore. Breivik concludes, "I'm not surprised [South Carolina is] in the top ten in the nation for violent crime [and] per-capita incarceration. . . . [We] need," he says, " . . . to develop a justice system that makes . . . more sense to us and more sense to Mama." Breivik is right. But what he may not realize is that his own mother's law is surprisingly close to the biblical model of justice. For example, in the Book of Numbers we read that if one man wronged another, he was to "confess his sin," "make full restitution" to the victim, and pay an additional 25 percent penalty. We need to get back to a biblical approach to criminal justice. That's why Dan Van Ness and I started Justice Fellowship, an arm of Prison Fellowship. Justice Fellowship pursues criminal justice goals that are socially redemptive--goals that include alternative sentencing, apologizing to victims, and making restitution. Now, that's a criminal justice system that even Ken Breivik's mama would approve of.  


Chuck Colson


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