Reforming Criminal Justice: A Christian Proposal, by Matthew Martens

This is a helpful and sobering book.

Helpful, because it provides an accessible and carefully structured orientation to both a Christian ethic of criminal justice alongside an introduction to the major dimensions of the criminal justice system in America.

Sobering, because it describes & reflects upon the problematic aspects of this system that are in dire need of reform.

Martens outlines what is good & true about criminal justice in America. He also unflinchingly examines the injustice that this same system perpetuates on a daily basis. As Martens clearly demonstrates, the decisions that our society makes on an individual & corporate scale in this domain are often matters of life & death.

Two major roadblocks to deeper understanding of this issue are the fact that many people have an insufficient grasp of a comprehensive Christian ethic of social justice & are also to a large extent ignorant of how the criminal justice system in the US actually works.

Discussion of criminal justice among most people is also highly partisan & linked to contentious political platforms & agendas. Martens shapes his prose & structures his book to address each of these areas.

After establishing the relationship b/w the gospel & the concept of social justice, in Part 1 Marten tethers the notion of justice to the biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself. A Christian ethic of criminal justice would accordingly prioritize principles like accuracy, due process, accountability, impartiality, and proportionality.

In Part 2, Martens discusses the history of criminal justice in America (including the way it is inextricably connected to the question of race) and then examines various components of the machinery of the legal process (e.g., plea bargaining, jury selection, sentencing, the death penalty, etc).

Throughout the book, Martens seeks to show “that the Bible does speak to the issue of criminal justice and that the root of the biblical concept of justice is love” (2). This central insight has the power to reshape or reorient your approach to crime, punishment, and the host of issues that fall under the broad category of social justice.

Personally, Martens’s book helped me realize how tentative my thinking has been on these issues & also some of the ways that my understanding of particular topics was informed more by the 20 years worth of Law and Order episodes I’ve watched rather than a grasp of how issues of criminal justice actually unfold in our cultural moment.

I still have a lot to process about Martens’ claims & categories, but the framework he provides here will certainly inform how I think about these controversial & complex issues.

Warmly recommended!
Book Review
December 1, 2023


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