Punitive justice places an emphasis on punishment as the best way to deter crime. The goal of punitive justice is that lawbreakers suffer the pain of punishment and determine to avoid it in the future, while onlookers will decide not to commit criminal acts so as to avoid similar treatment. In some cases, such as the death penalty, the one punished does not necessarily learn anything, but he or she will be prevented from committing any future crimes, and the criminal also receives what the crimes “deserve.”
Perhaps punitive justice is best understood in contrast to the other prevailing theory of justice: restorative justice. Restorative justice does not focus on punishing the criminal as much as having the criminal make amends for the crime with an attempt to restore all involved: criminals, victims, and all of society.
The Bible does not use either term, but there are instances where both of these approaches are advocated in Scripture.
Under the Old Testament Law, some offences (most notably murder—see Genesis 6:9, Leviticus 24:17, Exodus 21:12, and Numbers 35:30) were so heinous that the death penalty was warranted with no attempt to restore anything. After all, it would be impossible to do anything to “restore” the wrong done to a murder victim or his loved ones. Some things simply warrant punishment. Even the New Testament affirms the need for punitive justice but reminds Christians that God has ordained governments to carry this out, not vigilantes. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:1–4). Here, “bearing the sword” would include the death penalty as the Roman sword was the primary means of execution at the time.
In other instances, the Bible advocates restorative justice rather than punitive justice. For instance, in Exodus 22:1 the law said, “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” In this case, the one wronged is recompensed and the criminal is punished, but when it was over the thief was restored to society.
In the United States, the emphasis is on punitive justice, but the punishment is usually in the form of long prison sentences, which create a whole new set of problems for society. In at least some cases, prison sentences could be replaced by reparations and productive community service, which would enable the offender to repay the one wronged and also contribute to society. Far too often, the American system involves either long punishment in prison or a “slap on the wrist” with neither punishment nor reparations.
In conclusion, the Bible advocates punitive justice for some crimes and restorative justice for lesser crimes where making restitution might be possible. There is a proper place for both approaches based on the nature of the crime.