In the Torah – Deuteronomy, chapter 16 verse 20 – it says, “Tzedek, tzedek Tirdof.” (Justice, justice you shall pursue). This is one of the founding principles of the Jewish faith, a mantra that has guided Judaism and Western society for thousands of years. It is a call to action, not just a profession of faith, and it should guide us in our daily lives and our public works.
There is little disagreement that our criminal justice system is broken. From the moment of an arrest, there is potential for injustice. Police brutality, while rare, has caused certain levels of distrust, particularly in minority communities.
The United States has 4 percent of the world’s population, but roughly 25 percent of the prisoners. Our physical sites for incarceration are far more numerous than any other democratic country. We spend more money on prisons and jails than we do on our entire education system.
While our laws are written to be color blind, the reality is that people of color are simply treated differently when justice is meted out. Sixty percent of all prisoners in this country are people of color. One in 10 black adult males in their 30’s has been incarcerated at any given time.
Not only people of color are mistreated by the justice system. There is a separate system for rich and poor. Because of our cash bail system, people who cannot afford bail or the usurious bonds that are available in some states are forced to sit in jail until trial or plead guilty simply to avoid lengthy stays behind bars until trial. Furthermore, 60-90 percent of criminal defendants need publicly funded counsel. Public defenders are horribly overworked, handling between 350 and 1,000 cases per capita each year, making these attorneys, for the most part, less effective advocates for their clients.
Mandatory sentences pose another problem. Most people in our criminal justice system are there for non-violent drug crimes. More than half of all arrests are drug related, a majority of which are for personal use or simple possession. A retired federal Judge recently remarked that aircraft hijackers, terrorists and child rapists get less time in prison than someone who sells marijuana three times, because of the three strikes policy still in effect in some states. There were approximately 19,000 people in state prisons for drug offenses in 1980. Today, that number is over 200,000. Exponential increases are also seen in federal prisons.
Prisons have all but abandoned rehabilitation in favor of retribution. Severe overcrowding and pervasive violence are problematic. The use of solitary confinement for long stretches of time leaves long-term psychological effects on inmates, making reintegration that much more difficult.
Even after paying for their crimes, ex-convicts find many avenues closed to them. Mandatory disclosures of all criminal convictions when applying for jobs are a huge barrier to reintegration into society.
In Louisville, we are familiar with the Ban the Box legislation, a concerted effort to try and remove questions about past incarceration from job applications. Ex-felons are also denied voting rights; 6.1 million Americans are barred from voting due to a felony record, despite having served their time.
The recidivism rate in this country is also alarming. Once released, nearly half return to prison at some point. In other Western countries, the rate is much lower.
Make no mistake: This is a Jewish issue, and a relevant one. The justice of which the Torah teaches is for everyone, and we are commanded to pursue it. We can advocate; we can vote, we can hold our elected leaders accountable.
And we must do so now.
(Matt Goldberg, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, moderated an August 5 panel discussion on equality at The J.)