Rabbi Jonah Pesner's Letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland

March 11, 2021

The Honorable Merrick Garland
Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20530

Dear Attorney General Garland,

I write on behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose 850 congregations across North America encompass approximately 1.8 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, with membership of more than 2000 Reform rabbis, to congratulate you on your confirmation as the 86th Attorney General of the United States and to urge you to work quickly to implement policies that address systemic racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Specifically, we urge you to take steps to abolish the death penalty, pursue policing reform and oversight, and address the tragic state of the U.S. carceral system.

Inspired by Jewish text, teaching, and tradition, the Reform Movement supports criminal justice reform because we believe that our criminal justice system must be fair and humane. In Deuteronomy 16:20, the Torah commands us, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, "Justice, justice you shall pursue.” As you know, the sages explained that the word “tzedek” is repeated not only for emphasis but to teach us that we must be just in our pursuit of justice, that our means must be as just as our ends. We are also guided by the words of Leviticus (19:15), “You shall do no unrighteousness in judgement; you shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor favor the person of the mighty; but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” Justice must never be predicated on the color of one’s skin, but all too often in our nation, skin color plays a disproportion role in an individual’s interaction with the criminal justice system.

We are particularly concerned about the ongoing application of the death penalty, which we oppose generally, and which also disproportionately is applied against People of Color. Since 1976, 35 percent of those executed at the state and federal level have been Black despite Black Americans making up just 13 percent of the U.S. population. We were pained by the fact that after a 17 year pause on federal executions, the Trump administration, in its final six months, embarked on an unparalleled execution spree. Of the 16 people executed by the federal government since 1963, 13 were executed in this six-month period. This shocking acceleration of capital punishment is made worse by the racial bias on full display—7 of the 13 people executed were People of Color. This was done despite the knowledge that more than half of death row exonerees since 1976 have been Black, and more than 60 percent of exonerees have been People of Color.

We urge you in the strongest possible terms to act immediately to end the federal use of capital punishment. The clear injustices inherent in the application of the death penalty are a moral travesty and an indelible stain on our justice system.

The U.S. criminal justice system faces other challenges related to systemic racism as well, and the Department of Justice under your leadership has an essential role to play in addressing them. Across the nation, police officers do vital and heroic work to keep communities safe. Yet systemic racism has created a reality in which communities and People of Color are targeted for policing and subject to disproportionate use of force. The Department of Justice must do its part to reform policing by resuming a robust program of “pattern or practice” investigations and investing in the popular Collaborative Reform Initiative in the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).

Further, the U.S. carceral system is still suffering from the dual and related crises of mass incarceration and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Justice can address mass incarceration by building upon former Attorney General Holder’s August 12, 2013 memo on sentencing and by structuring federal funding in such a way that rewards further decarceration. The DOJ can also direct the Bureau of Prisons to further utilize compassionate release and community supervision programs through the duration and after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic to decrease the density of the federal prison population.

This unprecedented moment of racial reckoning amidst a pandemic presents a unique opportunity to look closely at and address significant shortcomings in our justice system. While the vast majority of the U.S. criminal justice system exists beyond federal control and DOJ action alone will not fix our broken system, history has shown that decisions made by the federal government set an example and direction for state and local jurisdictions. Additionally, the DOJ has tools to aid and incentivize state and local jurisdictions to implement reform efforts.

Again, we congratulate you on your confirmation as the 86th Attorney General and look forward to working with you and your office to make progress on all these and other issues in the coming years.


Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner