High Holy Days: Days of Awe & Criminal Justice: Introduction

Yamim Noraim & Criminal Justice: Introduction

The Days of Awe are devoted to contemplation of our sins-- moments when we have “missed the mark”-- and repentance for our bad actions. The Jewish philosopher teaches us that repentance involves recognizing our failures, seeking forgiveness, making restitutions for the wrongs we have committed, and changing our ways so that we do not commit the sin again. We are taught that for sins committed against God, we must pray, but for sins committed against another person, we must seek forgiveness directly from them and attempt to correct the wrong.

For crimes committed against society, that society has to impose penalties and exact punishment. In setting these kinds of policies, society has to balance justice with mercy, showing compassion and seeking rehabilitation for criminals while protecting the vulnerable population and victims of crime. Seeking this balance is deeply embedded in our Jewish values and text. Deuteronomy 16:20 commands us tzedek tzedek tirdof, “justice, justice shall you pursue,” emphasizing the importance of truly seeking to do right by individuals, communities, and society at large.

A just society is one in which everyone is judged by the same merit, where prejudices based on race, gender, nationality, or any other criteria have no place. A just criminal justice system is also one which primarily seeks not the punishment of wrongdoers but the rehabilitation of criminals.

Current trends cause us to question whether the criminal justice system functions in a truly just manner:

  • Today, the US is 5% of the world’s population but has 25% of world prisoners
  • From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled -- from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people.
  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001.
  • If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison

During this season when the Gates of Repentance are open, as we reflect about the ideas of sin and repentance, punishment and forgiveness, justice and mercy, we also might examine our criminal justice system and ask difficult questions: Is the system fair, treating all who stand before the courts of justice equally? How do we treat the millions of individuals within the system who are incarcerated? How can we lay a foundation for those who have paid their debt to society to re-enter the community successfully? These questions are especially pertinent as we seek forgiveness, mercy, and compassion for our own misdeeds.