Tag Archives: criminal justice reform

In 18 days, your vote has an impact on our criminal justice system

The Massachusetts legislative session just ended, with mixed results on issues dear to our community. We at JCRC were pleased with many aspects of the budget and the economic development bill, but we (and our partners in the immigration advocacy community) were sorely disappointed at the failure to adopt basic protections for immigrants being targeted in our community. And yet, on another issue of deep concern to our community, criminal justice reform, we celebrated the passage of the most significant and far-reaching state legislation in years. With our partners at the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) and the ACLU, we were greatly encouraged to see many of our own priorities (as determined by the JCRC Council – our representative body on behalf of our 43 member organizations) enshrined into law. And as with all other legislative victories, we knew that monitoring implementation of the new law would be critical in achieving justice that has been long delayed for so many in our community.

The ability of this new law to deliver a just criminal justice system hinges on a person whose influence is not universally understood: the District Attorney. And now, for the first time in recent memory, six of our eleven Massachusetts DA elections are contested and potentially decisive primary elections, scheduled for September 4th: only 18 days away.

So, those of us who have worked so hard for criminal justice reform are encouraging our community to become educated on this critical role, and to choose our candidates wisely.

Despite what we tend to believe about the determinative power of judges in our criminal legal system, a recent Boston Globe op-ed said that in fact:

“Prosecutors wield near absolute power. They determine which and how many criminal charges to file, with a grand jury typically rubber stamping the charges. Prosecutors then decide whether to offer a plea bargain and dictate its conditions. Given that more than 90 percent of criminal cases are resolved through pleas rather than trials, these choices by prosecutors effectively determine the outcome of the vast of majority criminal cases, even if judges nominally oversee the entry of the plea."

That amount of power in any one person’s hand should draw our attention, especially because we live in the shadow of decades of “tough-on-crime” laws that have prioritized mass incarceration over rehabilitation. Now more than ever, we need our DAs to be our partners in ensuring that our criminal justice system is truly just.

Here are some steps you can take to be a fully informed voter on this vital issue:

  • Review the key issues for the candidates running in your county (and perhaps remind yourself what county you vote in – for example: Boston is Suffolk; Cambridge, Lexington, and Newton are Middlesex; Brookline is Norfolk – find your county here). Check out the ACLU voters guides for Suffolk County, Middlesex County, and the rest here. JCRC Councilmember Kathy Weinman has collected all of the candidates’ websites in a great blog post.
  • See the candidates in person. If you belong to a congregation that’s a member of GBIO, come to the Suffolk and Middlesex candidate forum that they’re hosting on August 23rd at the Boston Teachers' Union in Dorchester (reach out to our organizer Ben Poor for more information).
  • Learn more about what a DA does. You can attend the CourtWatch training on August 21st at Temple Israel in Boston, hosted by members of various congregations advocating for Criminal Justice Reform (anyone is welcome). ​​Court watching is a way to hold DAs accountable by attending court hearings and documenting what happens. You don't need any previous experience to come to the training, only a desire to hold judges and prosecutors accountable for fairness and equity.

As I head into the voting booth on September 4th, I’ll be thinking about the public servants who are charged with implementing the laws we work so hard to pass, and about the importance of having the fairest DAs – who will ensure public safety while also advancing a system that is equitable and just.

Shabbat Shalom,
Jeremy

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