Putting Justice in the Criminal Justice System

In our inception, we at JCRC have known from our own history in Boston that the criminal justice system is not always just.

Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon’s “The Death of an American Jewish Community” chronicles the period in the 1940s when Jewish teens experienced regular assaults by Irish gangs, often fueled by the anti-Semitic radio diatribes of Father Charles Coughlin. But following the street violence, Jewish youth were victimized once again by the police and justice system, who too often turned a blind eye to the assaults.

The ADL kept scrupulous records of the confrontations, documenting the lackadaisical response of the police to the frequent attacks on these Jewish teens. But in the infrequent cases when the Jewish youth prevailed over their assailants, the Jews were vigorously prosecuted.  The targeting of powerless Jews both on the street and in the courts served as a wakeup call to the Jewish community to mobilize and organize – leading to the founding of the Jewish Community Council (as we were then named).

Our collective experience of a failing justice system, along with the development of our commitment to civil rights for all who live in this nation, have developed within us an enduring commitment to advocating for a fair and equitable justice system. And we have turned our attention to a current crisis of epic proportions; the rampant criminalization of people of color.

It is hard to overstate the devastating toll this has had on communities of color, in perpetuating intergenerational poverty, income inequality, and family instability. When over 27 million children in the United States have at least one parent in prison, then our entire society is at risk. In Massachusetts, where Latinos are 4.3 times more likely to be incarcerated than Whites – the highest disparity rate in the nation – and Blacks are 7.5 times more likely, we are called upon on to act (Sentencing Project).

Over a year ago, JCRC set about to address with renewed vigor this civil rights issue of our day, one aptly characterized as “The New Jim Crow.” Our Council invited policy experts to provide guidance and identify strategic levers for change. Last winter the Council discussed and endorsed a set of policy recommendations to:

  • reduce the rates of incarceration and recidivism,
  • reduce racial disparities in our criminal justice system,
  • reform the use of mandatory minimums to provide for more judicial discretion,
  • reform our juvenile justice system to reduce the school to prison pipelines, and
  • address the impact of fines and fees associated with all aspects of the criminal justice system.

Guided by this set of priorities, we have been hard at work alongside our partner, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), to advocate for meaningful criminal justice reform. Together, we are mobilizing the Jewish community along with other faith communities to press our legislators to act.  Leaders from five synagogues have brought hundreds of people through their doors to engage with their state senators and representatives, and fifty Reform rabbis from across the Commonwealth signed on to a letter urging serious reform.

Our efforts, and those of other criminal justice advocates, have borne fruit. By a vote of 27 to 10, our State Senate passed a bill reflecting all of our priorities in varying degrees. Now we need the Massachusetts House to be equally bold and seize this historic opportunity to pass comprehensive reform.

Join me and over 150 faith leaders, elected officials, and advocates this Monday at 1pm at the State House, at the Grand Staircase to demonstrate our support and solidarity.

If you can’t make it to the State House, you can still take action by using JCRC’s Phone2Action platform. Simply text “CJR” to the number 52886. You will receive a phone script and be instantly connected to your legislator to demonstrate your support for this work. You can also sign up online here.

This is, once again, an urgent moment. And as we have many times in the past, it is one where we have an opportunity: To speak with a powerful voice and to take meaningful action to advance our community’s commitment to justice. I hope that you will join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy