Previous chapters have mentioned God’s command to set aside refuge cities for those who commit manslaughter to flee for safety from the avenger of blood. But this chapter mentions an aspect I hadn’t seen before: “He is to stay in that city until he stands trial before the assembly.” (verse 6)
The city of refuge was not intended for someone to flee and escape justice. Its purpose was to ensure justice for both the victim and the accused. In all the statutory requirements of the Old Testament, there is no mention of a prison system. No penalty that involves locking someone up for the rest of their life, just guilt offerings, restitution, expulsion from the community, or death.
It might seem as if our prison system has always existed to protect the community from those who violate the law, but that is false in two aspects. First, prison systems like ours are a relatively new invention that originated in England a few hundred years ago as a means of putting the idle poor to work. The first of them were called workhouses. The first prison in the colonies was the Massachusetts Castle Island Penitentiary, built in 1780, and was modeled on these workhouses (according to historian Adam J. Hirsch). Second, our prisons are not protecting the community from dangerous criminals. Over 60% of the prisoners in America today were convicted of two broad classes of non-violent crimes: immigration violations and drug violations. And we aren’t even protecting them from themselves, as drug use in prisons is an epidemic.
Since 1973, when the “War on Drugs” began, prison populations have expanded by 500%, after a 50 year period of stability.(https://www.nap.edu/read/18613/chapter/4) Despite the War on Drugs and spending of $1.5 Trillion since 1970, the rate of drug addiction in the US has remained between 1-2% of the population. (https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/chart-says-war-drugs-isnt-working/322592/) The prison system has become increasingly privatized, where mega-corporations run prisons as a profit machine. Instead of a means to reduce crime, it has become a business that requires sufficient labor to produce the products they sell. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/04/28/how-for-profit-prisons-have-become-the-biggest-lobby-no-one-is-talking-about/?utm_term=.5880f1779248)
Worse than all these issues with the prison system is the disparity in justice depending on ethnicity. Though the majority of the population is white, a disproportionate number of arrests, convictions, and incarcerations are people of color. When confronted with this alarming statistic, some counter that those statistics reflect who is committing crime. But that isn’t true. In many jurisdictions, two individuals arrested for the same crime will receive significantly different sentences based on their race. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/17/opinion/sunday/unequal-sentences-for-blacks-and-whites.html
I know, what does any of this have to do with Joshua 20? God shares a system for justice that protects both the one harmed and the one accused. God’s system insists that both the foreigner and the native be treated the same. His Word states that in Christ, there is no longer any justification for division based on language, ethnicity, skin tone, or gender. Yet often those who defend our national prison system, ignoring its many flaws, are brothers and sisters in Christ who have lost sight of God’s definition of justice.