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QUESTION: What does the Bible say about punishing criminals?
ANSWER: When God set up Israel as a nation He provided guidance in everything from public health to religious worship - including the area of jurisprudence. It is interesting that there is no mention of the building of a single prison in Scripture (however, the presence of a local “jail” to hold suspects apparently existed, Leviticus 24:12).  As I understand Scripture, once guilt was determined, the only two options were restitution or capital punishment. The only level of legal activity that I can find appears to take place on what we would call the county Sheriff or magistrate’s level. It was this office that was given responsibility for carrying out the punishments as directed by God.  It is very clear in Romans chapter 13 that police officers are the ministers of God and are to be treated as such. Additionally, God set up six “cities of refuge” to where those charged with murder could flee for protection until their trial and, when necessary, could remain until the death of the High Priest. Society as a whole, aided by the church, was to work on rehabilitation.
Examples of the different types of restitution God demanded include: payment when a serious injury was incurred (Ex 21:33-36); a five-fold restitution was to be made for stealing (Ex 22:1-15); some damages required a payment of 120% of original value (Lev 6:1-6; Num 5:6-7); some situations demanded a seven-fold reimbursement (Prov 6:31). To make restitution was so important, in fact, that if the guilty party refused, he was to be killed (Eze 33:15). The whole idea for all of this was to teach our ultimate responsibility to God (Joel 2:13). Those making restitution were not jailed, but remained free to earn a living for themselves and their families while paying off their debt at no cost to society – now there’s a novel idea.
Restoration was always the goal. To be restored to a place of trust and to full “membership” in society with all of the privileges: Jer 18:1-12; John 21:15-18; Rom 5:12-19 (cf. also 8:1-4); 1 Sam 15:24-25; 2 Sam 14:1-21; Job 42:10; Psalm 50:1-23; 51:12; Isa 57:18; 58:12; Jer 3:22; Hosea 14:4; Jer 33:23-26; Micah 7:19; Matt 21:42; John 17:5; Heb 11:19; James 5:19-20; Luke 19:8.
Retribution is the swift and certain punishment of a guilty person. Some crimes are so heinous and reprehensible that God gave civil government both the authority and responsibility to use capital punishment (which God declares is a deterrent to crime, Deut 13:11; 17:13; 19:20). A partial list of crimes punishable by death includes murder (Ex 21:14); gross negligence resulting in the loss of human life (Ex 21:29); idolatry (Ex 22:20; Deut 13:6-11); witchcraft (John 22:18; Lev 20:27); adultery (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22); incest (Lev 20:11-12); homosexuality (Lev 20:13); Bestiality (Lev 20:15-16); adolescent rebellion (Deut 21:18-21); rape (Deut 22:25); prostitution (Deut 22:21); slavery/kidnapping (Deut 24:7); and, as stated earlier, even refusing to make restitution for a less serious crime (Eze 33:15).
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