Rethinking Incarceration

Advocating for Justice That Restores

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Dominique DuBois Gilliard
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , February
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Romans 13:1-4 is among the most cited scriptures when Christians speak of law and order. These verses explicitly tell believers that they must obey governing authorities as these authorities have been appointed by God to rule over them and judge right from wrong; therefore, those who have done no wrong have nothing to fear. However, these verses seem to overlook several situations of imprisonment and execution under false pretenses in the Bible itself. Less cited is the reciprocal responsibility of the governing bodies, as found in Deuteronomy 1:16-17, where those in the criminal justice system are reminded to judge fairly and impartially, no matter the wealth, citizenship, or social status of the accused.

A criminal justice system is a necessary part of any society, but surely something is amiss in the United States—which now incarcerates individuals at a rate higher than that of “the Soviet Union at the zenith of the Gulag [or] South Africa at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle” (Loïc Wacquant, “Deadly Symbiosis: Rethinking Race and Imprisonment in Twenty-First Century America,” Boston Review 27, 2002). Although the United States accounts for only 5% of the world’s population, prisoners jailed in the US account for 25% of all prisoners worldwide. Dominique DuBois Gilliard’s Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores admonishes Christians to understand and confront this situation. He reminds readers of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plea that the church be the moral conscience of the state (9).

In part 1, Gilliard provides much needed background for understanding mass incarceration in the United States. In this, he builds upon works such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2012) and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Gilliard identifies five pipelines that lead to mass incarceration: the War on Drugs; private prisons; immigration; mental illness; and the school-to-prison pipeline. These chapters explain the history of these problems, review the church’s complicated relationship to them—sometimes taking a punitive stance, while other times attempting to reform broken systems—and describe the damage being done to individuals, families, and communities by a system which values retribution over human need.

In part 2, Gilliard delves deeper into Christian theology, and the work of prison chaplains and reformers. He contends that there is scriptural basis for caring about the needs of prisoners, such as Hebrews 13:3 and Matthew 25:36, which urge Christians to identify with the imprisoned—as Jesus does. Gilliard challenges the church to embrace a model of restorative justice in society—an approach to dealing with crime and other social deviance which reduces recidivism (176), and follows the biblical imperative to reintegrate transgressors into society “in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians. 6:1). Gilliard makes it clear that he is not being soft on crime, and that punishment may sometimes be necessary—but so is eliminating the systemic injustice that devastates so many lives, families, and communities. Through restorative justice, offenders may come to see how their actions affect others, and communities may come together to better help those in need.

Gilliard states that “mass incarceration will not end via legislative tweaks and incremental reforms. Mass incarceration will be halted only by a moral awakening” (9). Drawing upon historical and sociological studies, as well as theology, Rethinking Incarceration seeks to inform and awaken Christians and spur them towards ushering in this social change. This book should be read and discussed by pastors and laypeople, as well as university and seminary students.

About the Reviewer(s): 

V. Jacquette Rhoades is Adjunct Instructor at Ashland University.

Date of Review: 
August 28, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dominique DuBois Gilliard is the director of racial righteousness and reconciliation for the Love Mercy Do Justice initiative of the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). He serves on the boards of directors for the Christian Community Development Association and Evangelicals for Justice.


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