(RNS) “Do you want to press charges?”
The police officer posed this question after we discovered that the person who had used my Social Security number to open and max out a number of credit cards was a formerly trusted colleague.
No, I didn’t want to press charges. I wanted my former co-worker to explain to me why she had violated my trust. I wanted her to relieve me of the hassle of calling fraud departments and filing paperwork to scrub my credit. I wanted to live in a society in which a single mom working full time would not need to charge groceries and gas to a stolen credit card.
But who would benefit if she went to prison?
I didn’t press charges, and thankfully lost only time, not money, to the ordeal. Though I communicated that I would be open to speaking, we never talked again.
The choices presented to me then, more than 10 years ago, were stark: Pursue a criminal case or do nothing.
But the situation is more complicated. America’s criminal justice system is in desperate need of “teshuvah.”
This Jewish concept, meaning “repentance” or “return,” affirms that every single one of us always has the potential to come back to our best selves. Even a person who does evil his or her entire life, the medieval sage Moses Maimonides taught, can do teshuvah on his or her dying day and be forgiven. (Hilchot Teshuvah 1:3) The holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the start of the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) constitute sacred time for teshuvah, with its possibility that each of us might live a better life in the New Year.
The notion of teshuvah lies at the center of the Jewish criminal justice system, as envisioned by the ancient rabbis. When one biblical text refers to a person convicted of a crime first as “the wicked one,” and then as “your brother,” the rabbis suggest that a person who has completed punishment should be viewed as an equal member of society, not tainted by a past transgression. (Sifrei Ki Tetze, Piska 286)
This contrasts with present-day society, in which those who have completed their sentences often find themselves punished over and over by virtue of their criminal record — whether by a curtailment of rights such as public benefits or voting, or by the difficulty of securing a job.
In a 20th-century legal ruling, Rabbi Chaim David HaLevy, the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, noted that classic Jewish law does not include a prison system:
“By all opinions, punishment is not a goal unto itself. Rather, it is intended to return the criminal to doing right … What benefit is prison from this perspective? … Experience proves that imprisonment does not rehabilitate the criminal …
“In addition to this, it also causes further harm after his release from prison, after he has completely cut off ties with his community — economic ties, social ties and the like — behold, he is abandoned and neglected in his community, and until he manages to reintegrate himself in the life from which he was cut off, there is serious concern that additional crimes will become his way, in the absence of any other choice.” (Aseh L’kha Rav 3:57)
Some 40 years after HaLevy wrote these words, America is waking up to the fact that prisons don’t work. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than three-quarters of those who leave prison are arrested again within five years. Those charged with property crimes are the most likely to be rearrested.
Explanations of recidivism for those with criminal records include the difficulty of finding a job or securing housing or public benefits, the challenge of adhering to parole requirements and the lack of educational opportunities. A system that focuses on punishment does not serve the needs of victims, whose financial, psychological and social well-being the criminal justice system rarely addresses.
Thankfully, a growing number of efforts put teshuvah, rather than punishment, at the center. These include the Prison-to-College Pipeline at John Jay College, which allows men in an upstate New York prison to begin their studies while incarcerated, and complete their degree on campus after release; redirection to drug treatment; school-based conflict resolution initiatives; and restorative justice programs such as Common Justice that focus on both holding the perpetrator accountable and meeting the needs of the victim.
This is not to say that we should open the prisons tomorrow and let everyone out. Certainly, some people pose a significant danger to society. Many will not succeed without significant health and social services. Instead, we must invest in systems that will keep as many people as possible out of prison, facilitate teshuvah and respond to the needs of the victims.
Perhaps the 13th-century sage Rabbi Yom Tov Ishbili predicted the success of such programs in reducing recidivism. Asked whether to accept the repentance of a person sentenced with expulsion, he ruled, “You may lift the decree which you have decreed upon him so that he may do teshuvah, and so he will not go astray to a life of evil. … For in the case of all sinners who sinned and then repented, we accept them forever.” (Ritva 159)
(Rabbi Jill Jacobs is executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights)