WASHINGTON – Ahead of the House of Representatives’ vote on the FIRST STEP Act (H.R.5682), Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement on behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis, and wider Reform Movement:
“We are deeply disappointed by the House of Representatives’ pursuit of the misguided FIRST STEP Act. The Reform Jewish Movement, united with our partners and allies in the civil rights community, firmly believes that sentencing reform must be included in any effective attempt to reform our criminal justice system.
“The FIRST STEP Act will not address mass incarceration or reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Rather, the bill unfairly excludes a long list of crimes from those eligible for early release, gives overly broad discretion to the Attorney General for implementation despite his consistent opposition to criminal justice reform, and relies on an untested risk assessment system which will disproportionately disadvantage black and brown prisoners.
"In the book of Deuteronomy, we are commanded, ‘Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – justice, justice you shall pursue.’ When, on average, one in three black men in America will serve time in prison at some point in their life, it’s clear that our justice system is deeply broken. Our system cries out for real change – which the FIRST STEP Act, unfortunately, will not deliver.
"The rabbis offer many explanations for the repetition of the word tzedek in the Torah’s charge. Some argue it implies society must guarantee a just process as well as outcome; others associate this commandment with the conception “justice delayed is justice denied.” Finally, some rabbis argue the repetition is for emphasis. Regardless, there is no doubt the American system is broken, God’s children are suffering and we need change now.
"Any serious effort to reform our criminal justice system must include sentencing reforms that address mass incarceration and racial bias. The FIRST STEP Act will not accomplish either, so we urge the House of Representatives to reject it."
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 2,000 Reform rabbis. Visit www.rac.org for more.