What If a Criminal Justice System Isn’t Actually Just?

An arrest, a jail sentence, or a death penalty are all acts of violence in which the system uses force against a person who has been made in the image of God. God permits this in order to maintain law and order in his world. However, it is critical that such violence be committed justly, which is to say, that it be done in love for both the victim and the accused. Hence, this is a book about love and how a criminal justice system—and especially America’s criminal justice system—can display love, for a truly just system is a system that will be marked by God’s love for accused and victim alike.

Most of us probably assume that the criminal justice system in our country is generally sound. We may believe that it needs some tweaks here and there. We may understand that because it exists in a fallen world it will in some ways reflect the sins and weaknesses of the people who control and oversee it. But rarely do we pause to ask questions like this: If we had to design a criminal justice system from scratch and do so in a way that is consistent with Scripture, what might it look like? What principles would we embed within it? And how closely would it resemble the system we currently have?

Matthew Martens has thought deeply about these issues. He thought about them as a lawyer who graduated at the top of his class at the University of North Carolina School of Law, as a law clerk for a federal court of appeals judge, and then for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist at the Supreme Court. Over the past 20 years, he thought about them while serving first as a federal prosecutor and then as a defense attorney. And then he thought about them as a seminary student who graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary with a master’s degree in biblical studies. He is nothing if not well-qualified. His reflections and analysis of criminal justice in general, and the American criminal justice system in particular, have now been published in Reforming Criminal Justice: A Christian Proposal, a book that is fascinating, concerning, and challenging all at once.

Martens explains that the book had its genesis in a conversation with one of the pastors at his church. This dinner took place shortly after the events in Ferguson, Missouri that followed news of the death of Michael Brown. Knowing that Martens was familiar with America’s criminal justice system, this pastor encouraged him to write a book on the subject. He considered it but, being busy with other matters, set it aside. Several years later, following the death of George Floyd and all the unrest that followed, another pastor encouraged him to write the same book. And this time he agreed.

He begins it this way: “You have heard it said that justice delayed is justice denied. But I tell you that justice denied is love denied. And love denied to either the crime victim or the criminally accused is justice denied. This, I hope to persuade you, is not merely my view but also Christ’s.” He means to show that the Bible speaks to the issue of criminal justice and that “the root of the biblical concept of justice is love.” For justice to be done, love must be extended to both the victim of a crime and to the one who has been accused of it. A system will be just to the degree that it extends love in this way.

Martens believes there are two roadblocks that have prevented Christians from having helpful conversations about criminal justice. The first is that some of the loudest voices on the issue are not well-informed and do not have an accurate knowledge of the way the criminal justice system actually operates. The second is that much of the discussion “occurs without reference to a comprehensive Christian ethic of criminal justice.

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