Tag Archives: criminal justice reform

More than a Moment

After months of drafts, redrafts and negotiations, we were heartened when earlier this week, the MA legislature approved a bill focusing on a JCRC priority: police reform. The “Act relative to justice, equity and law enforcement in the Commonwealth” now awaits the governor’s signature. We join with our partners at the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization in thanking Governor Baker for his early leadership in support of several key components contained in this comprehensive legislation, and we will stand with him when he signs it into law. At the same time, we know that this bill does not include all that its advocates hoped for, and is in fact, just a starting point. As Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, chair of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and one of the six conference committee members who negotiated the final version said “…one bill is not going to address every issue… there is a lot more work to be done”.

In many ways, this week here in Massachusetts encapsulates the moment we’re in as we approach the end of 2020. While much has happened in the months since this summer when millions of Americans took to the streets in support of racial justice, many of the commitments that came from those weeks of action are still being negotiated, and much remains unresolved. It is for this reason that now is a time to be explicit in recognizing and articulating the unfinished nature of the work of 2020. We do so at a moment where conversations are taking place at every level of society, from what has to happen next in Massachusetts, to the fierce debates and jockeying over priorities on the agenda for the Biden administration and the next Congress.

As was true in the weeks after the murder of George Floyd, we at JCRC are holding ourselves accountable to our partners. We are committed to listening to them and honoring their priorities and, where we can, making their priorities our own. We see ourselves, the organized Jewish community in Boston, as bearing the responsibility of citizenship,  working hand in hand with others toward a collective vision for the improvement of our society, and the realization of a commonwealth that benefits us all.  

To that end, we invite you, leaders and activists within our Jewish community, to join us on Tuesday, December 15th, 12pm, for the next installment of our Speaker Series. We’re thrilled to be joined by the Rev. Liz Walker of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, and best-selling author and CNN commentator Bakari Sellers. We’ve invited these two partners of JCRC and of the Jewish community to talk with us about the work ahead in pursuit of racial justice in our country. We’ll hear from them about how they understand this moment, and their guidance for their Jewish partners about what we are called to do in meeting it.

The weeks and months after George Floyd’s murder were a profound moment in our nation’s reckoning with our legacy of racism. But moments can be fleeting and windows too often close. It is our responsibility, all of us who stood up for racial justice in June, to make sure that 2020 is remembered as more than a moment. Of course, we, as Jews, understand that work worth doing is also ongoing. As Rabbi Tarfon taught:

It is not our duty to complete the work, nor are we free to desist from it.

                                                                        (Pirkei Avot 2:16)

We hope that you’ll join us on December 15th and that you’ll be a part of the work ahead, with JCRC, toward an American society that is more just.

Shabbat Shalom,



Criminal Justice Reform Principles

  • With just 4.4% of the world’s population, the U.S. houses roughly 25% of the world’s prisoners--over 2.2 million individuals. We house 30% of the world's population of incarcerated women.  
  • 1 in 15 black men and 1 in 36 Latino men is incarcerated, compared with 1 in 106 white men.  
  • Over 2.7 million children have at least one parent in prison.  
  • Nearly half of all state prisoners are nonviolent offenders and 16% are drug offenders.  
  • Despite similar levels of usage, 2/3 of drug offenders are black and Latino—that’s roughly 10X the rate of white users.  
  • In Massachusetts, our recidivism rate is close to 40%. 

It is imperative for our society to build a criminal justice infrastructure that balances the needs of public safety, the rights of victims, and also establishes a meaningful rehabilitative system to ensure that people have the opportunity to succeed after incarceration.  The inequities faced by people of color in the justice system constitute one of the most pressing civil rights crises of our time. Racial disparities are a pernicious and, ultimately, unacceptable reality of our criminal justice system. In particular, progressive approaches to nonviolent offenders are an essential means towards reducing the devastating impact that incarceration and its aftermath has on our communities.  America can and must do better, and the organized Jewish community can play an indispensable role, consonant with our tradition, in moving this agenda forward. Widespread, transformative change will require a groundswell of energy at the state and local levels, the kind of work to which local community relations organizations are ideally suited.  


The Jewish community has a distinguished track record dating back to the early 1930s in fighting for racial equality and civil rights throughout the United States. Such fights included advancing racial equity in education, ending segregation, and, in more recent years, ensuring enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The civil rights movement of the 1960s transformed America and advanced the principle of equality for all under the law.  

We recognize that our community’s presence in these fights has not been as felt in the following decades. There remains much work to be done, which calls for the involvement of the community at large. Beginning in the 1970s the U.S. prison population grew dramatically and, along with the rate of incarceration, this phenomenon is referred to as mass incarceration. Studies have shown that mass incarceration is a significant contributing factor to poverty, income inequality, and family instability. Mass incarceration compounded with the erosion of the Voting Rights Act, and prevalence of institutional bias perpetuate structural inequality that keeps low-income and communities of color at a disadvantage. 

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston Supports: 

  • Policies that reduce the rates of incarceration and recidivism.  
  • Policies that address and confront the racial disparities in our criminal justice system; 
  • The reform of mandatory minimum sentences to reduce injustice in its effects and application; 
  • Policies that challenge our state’s unconscionably high recidivism rate, including but not limited to increasing access to pre-incarceration diversionary paths, re-entry programs, mental health and substance abuse services, and job-training and stabilization supports for individuals upon release; 
  • Work that addresses the communal impacts of high incarceration rates, particularly on family members of those incarcerated; 
  • Efforts that reform our juvenile justice system to reduce the school to prison pipeline. 
  • Actions to address the economic impact of fines and fees associated with all aspects of the criminal justice system, from pre-trail bail reform to fees associated with probation and parole; 
  • Outreach to local groups for support and wisdom, coalition building, particularly with those most directly affected by the criminal justice system. 

Statement from JCRC on Murder of George Floyd

We at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston are heartbroken and angered by the murder - as charged by the Hennepin County prosecutor - of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement in Minneapolis last week. We stand with the African-American community and all communities in mourning the deaths of Mr. Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others who have lost their lives simply because of the persistent racism that afflicts our nation. Here in Boston, the organized Jewish community is in deep partnership and relationship with leaders in the Black community. We are reaching out to these friends, members of the clergy, and other civic leaders to express to them our solidarity and support and to ask them what they require of us in these difficult days.

In 2017, the JCRC Council embraced a series of principles regarding criminal justice reform, including support for policies that address and confront the racial disparities in our criminal justice system. Today and every day we reaffirm our commitment to those principles and to the urgent work of advancing justice in our country.

We will continue to update here in the coming hours and days regarding events and activities that our partners are requesting our participation and solidarity in.


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,

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,