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Why criminal justice reform?

The promise of America and the promise of Judaism rest on the shared value that every human is equal in the eyes of the law; that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim: in God’s image.

Today in Ohio there is a glaring exception to this rule; one way to strip an individual’s rights away. This means of dehumanizing and denying basic liberties is to label someone a felon. Returning citizens in Ohio often face insurmountable barriers on their path to teshuva. They are met with strict probation restrictions and large penalties for minor infractions. Bearing the simple label of “felon,” someone can be denied housing, jobs, education, public assistance, health care, loans, childcare and due process of the law. Really think about surviving without even one of these things. Now, imagine knowing you are likely to never attain most of them ever again. This leads to the inability to support a family and reintegrate into society; to generational poverty and re-incarceration. It leads to the antithesis of the Days of Awe; to the opposite of the promise of rebirth, renewal and blank slates. It leads to hopelessness.

The label “felon,” which is the difference between living as a free person and being stripped of basic rights, is currently being applied to an extreme variety of crime levels. Reform OH’s first issue campaign is aimed at returning the hope of real teshuvah to low-level, non-violent, non-sex offenders. We believe that someone living in poverty with addiction and mental illness, found in possession of a small quantity of drugs, should not have their life destroyed and civil rights stripped.

Mass incarceration is a Jewish problem but the damaging narrative exists that it is not. As Jews we are never strangers to the experience of being cast aside by society. The click of cell doors locking and the sounds of boots barreling up apartment stairs in the dead of night ring loudly in our collective memory. The 12-15,000 Jews currently imprisoned in America and their families often do not see their Jewish communities as safe, supportive spaces to discuss their experiences. Let’s change that conversation. Our communities include Jews of color. If our youth enter the criminal justice system they will not be seen as Hebrew School graduates or Jewish Camp counselors. Incarcerated Jews belong to us too.

50,600 Ohioans are currently imprisoned in facilities built to house 38,600. Black Ohioans make up just 10% of our population but half of the imprisoned.  Our prisons have become a clearinghouse for the addicted, mentally ill and impoverished. A diverse, bi-partisan coalition across our state is standing up to say, “Enough; not in my name. Our $2 billion a year can better be spent inside communities alleviating poverty, treating addiction and mental illness than putting our most vulnerable citizens behind bars.” Reform Jews across Ohio are standing with them.