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No Trivial Pursuit: Criminal Justice Reform

No Trivial Pursuit: Criminal Justice Reform

It is an exciting time for criminal justice reform advocates across the country. Legislators, activists and citizens from across the political spectrum are coming together to make our nation’s justice system more just. This collaboration can be seen in the Bipartisan Summit that took place this past spring hosted by Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Donna Brazile and Pat Nolan. In addition, the new bipartisan Coalition for Public Safety brings together the Koch Brothers, the ACLU, the Center for American Progress and others and is working across the political spectrum to bring about comprehensive criminal justice reform.

The problems with our justice system are not new: despite having only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, making us the world’s largest jailer. Our mass incarceration policy has developed over time; between 1980 and 2012, the U.S. federal prison population rose from about 25,000 inmates to 219,000 inmates, an increase of more than 790 percent. At the end of 2013, an estimated 6,899,000 persons were under the supervision of adult correctional systems, which includes those incarcerated in prison or local jail in addition to those supervised in the community on parole or probation.

In hopes of addressing the variety of problems, a number of criminal justice reform bills have been introduced already this Congress. Advocates are looking for comprehensive criminal justice reform that will address front end problems like sentencing; “behind the wall” issues like overcrowding in prisons and treatment of prisoners while incarcerated; and back end reform that would address collateral consequences of incarceration and reduce recidivism.

Fortunately, we have already begun to see progress being made around the country. Not only did Nebraska become the nineteenth state to abolish the death penalty (and the first red state to do so in 40 years!), but Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed into law a bipartisan piece of legislation that will overhaul the state’s prison systems and ultimately reduce overcrowding. As of June 1st, Ohio became the seventeenth state to lead on fair chance hiring by “banning the box,” or removing a question about past criminal convictions on applications submitted for jobs in state government entities. The legislation is aimed at helping the one in three Americans with criminal records successfully reintegrate into society.

In the months to come, we hope to see progress made at the federal level as well. The Reform Movement, and our rabbis around the country, have been active in urging Members of Congress, especially Chairman of the Judiciary Committee Senator Chuck Grassley, to move reform forward. Our biblical tradition emphasizes the importance of teshuva, or repentance. In Leviticus 16:29-30, we are taught that once one atones for their sins, they start anew with a clean slate, deserving of a second chance. These lessons inspire our belief that prisons should be places for rehabilitation and those who have served their sentences should be allowed a fresh start and the opportunity to reintegrate into society.

Join us in our pursuit of justice by urging your Members of Congress to support sentencing reform, end racial profiling and stop solitary confinement.