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

Reforming Criminal Justice

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. Rather, much of the current Christian engagement on this issue sounds more like political talking points than a biblical framework.” He means to address both of these and lead Christians into more accurate, profitable, and biblical discussions.

Key to his explanation of criminal justice is that “the criminal justice system is, by definition, state-sponsored violence. Every criminal law, even a just one, is an authorization for the state to use physical force against an image bearer if he or she fails to comply with the law’s mandate.” The Bible does not prohibit such violence but, rather, explicitly sanctions it. 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.

The book is comprised of two parts. In the first part, Martens proposes a Christian ethic of criminal justice that can then be used to analyze America’s system or that of any other nation. Here he draws out biblical principles that can apply to any nation at any time in history. He considers how criminal justice is a form of social justice. (For those who recoil at the use of the words social justice, he uses the term in the valid or traditional sense of “the just ordering of society” rather than the modern sense that is ideological and connected to critical theory.) If criminal justice is truly a matter of the just ordering of society, Christians ought to care about it and be as active in countering injustice in this area as in other areas like abortion or sex slavery. After all, “justified people should advocate for more just laws.” What might just laws, and therefore a just criminal justice system, promote and value? His answer is accuracy, due process, accountability, impartiality, and proportionality. Each of these terms receives a chapter-length treatment to show how they are consistent with the character of God and his revelation of himself in the Bible.

In the second section, Martens takes a look at the way America’s criminal justice system has been structured and the way that it functions. He especially considers aspects of it that so many people take for granted. In every case, he considers whether it truly reflects God’s love and justice. He means to ensure that his readers understand how the system actually works and especially how it handles the prosecution of criminal offenses, beginning with indictment and continuing all the way through sentencing. It’s important to understand that his focus is not on policing, for that would be a very different book that would fall outside of his expertise. Rather, his focus is on what happens after the police have apprehended a suspect and turned him or her over to the criminal justice system.

So in this section of the book he considers what the system counts as a crime, then looks at plea bargaining, jury selection, judges, assistance of counsel, exculpatory evidence, witnesses, sentencing, and the death penalty. In every case, he considers how this aspect of the system measures up in accuracy, due process, accountability, impartiality, and proportionality. You may not be shocked to learn that he believes the system often falls far short, and that elements of injustice are deeply embedded and widely accepted within America’s criminal justice system. He makes this case slowly and deliberately but, to my mind, convincingly.

A final chapter asks what Christian individuals can do and how they can act in order to advocate for greater justice and for justice that flows from love for both those who have been victimized and those who have been accused.

I have commented in the past that there is a lot of sameness in Christian publishing. It’s for that reason that I am so often intrigued when I find a book that is completely different from any I have read before. This one most certainly qualifies. In Reforming Criminal Justice, Matthew Martens addresses a subject that concerns few of us but ought to concern all of us. He explains what the Bible says about criminal justice, calls us to analyze the systems our nations have, and encourages us to advocate for ones that are better, which is to say, ones that reflect God’s love and God’s justice. Whoever you are and wherever you live (and, it should be noted, I live in a country other than the one that forms the setting for this book), I expect you will benefit from reading it and that you will be challenged by it.

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