Poe-etic Justice

A 19-year-old man stood nervously in a Houston courtroom, waiting to hear his sentence. He had been found guilty of stealing his grandmother’s car and wrecking it. The sentence turned out to be simple but eloquent. State District Judge Ted Poe took the keys to the young man’s own car—a purple Trans Am—and handed them over to the grandmother. Until the grandmother’s own car could be repaired, she would have the use of her grandson’s car. The outraged defendant turned to his lawyer and demanded: "Can he do that?" Yes, Judge Poe can do that. And his sentence is a superb example of how judges can put biblical ideals of justice into action. This is not the first example of Judge Poe’s creative—you might even say poetic—justice. He recently sent a wife beater, not to prison, but to the steps of city hall. There he was required to confess his crime and apologize to his wife—in front of a crowd and TV cameras. In another case Judge Poe ordered a shoplifter to spend seven days standing in front of a K-Mart wearing a sandwich board that read, "I stole from this store." In a case involving a drunk driver who struck and killed two people, Judge Poe sent the offender to prison for 20 years and ordered that photos of the two victims be hung in the man’s prison cell. Some critics have grumbled about Judge Poe’s creative sentences, calling them cruel and unconstitutional. But Judge Poe says his ideas come straight from the Bible. In the Book of Numbers we read that if one man wrongs another, he is to confess his sin. Numbers also requires an offender to make full restitution to his victim. Then there’s the biblical concept of restoration. As Poe put it, "Jewish and Christian law teaches that if you do a crime, you get right with the victim." The biblical principles that Poe is working from are summed up in the biblical concept of shalom—a term commonly translated as peace. But it means more than that: It means the existence of right relationships, harmony, and wholeness. When offenders commit crimes, they’re not only breaking a law, they’re violating the shalom of the community. Restoring shalom requires confession, restitution, and reconciliation. So when Judge Poe forces wife beaters to apologize publicly to their spouses, he’s helping restore the shalom between husbands and wives. When he requires thieves to confess their crimes in public, or when he shows drunk drivers pictures of their victims, he’s helping offenders understand the damage they’ve done to the shalom of a community. And the facts show that Judge Poe’s approach works: His court has the lowest recidivism rate in the county, and he says he’s never seen the same criminal before his bench twice. Houston voters apparently like Poe’s tactics as well: They’ve reelected him three times. So when you hear people say the answer to our crime problem is to just lock up offenders, tell them about the Texas judge and his poetic justice: the judge who uses biblical principles to create punishments that really fit the crime—and that restore the shalom of the community.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary