Ethics Opinion

Why our Jewish and Christian faiths demand criminal justice reform

A cell in Alcatraz.

(RNS) A common theme invoked in both the Jewish holiday of Passover and the Christian holiday of Easter is the portrayal of suffering under harsh and unfair punishment.

For Jews it was enslavement in Egypt; for Christians it was the Crucifixion of Jesus. On these holy days, we are confronted with powerful warnings against cruel and unusual treatment with the reminder that our faith traditions deeply value human dignity, mercy and redemption.

These holidays remind us that we have an auspicious opportunity to turn our attention to our country’s own systems of punishment and justice. With more than 2 million people behind bars, the United States has around 5 percent of the world’s total population, but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners.

And while mass incarceration affects Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, communities of color are disproportionately incarcerated: Roughly 1 in 3 black men born today is expected to serve some time in prison in his life, as compared to 1 in 17 white men, according to a U.N. report.

Across the country, there is a growing consensus that our criminal justice system is broken and that it must be reformed. We have seen efforts at the local and state levels to address inequalities and dysfunctions in many areas of the criminal justice system, from sentencing to re-entry and from juvenile justice to mental health. Building on the success of these reforms, the federal government has now undertaken its own examination of criminal justice procedures.

We stand on the precipice of the most significant transformations in the criminal justice system in more than a generation.

As people of deep and abiding faith, we stand with the broad and varied coalition of faith leaders and denominations, policymakers, advocacy groups and activists calling for meaningful criminal justice reform. And we affirm that improving the administration of justice is not just a matter of politics, but also a moral and ethical obligation.

We cannot sit idly by while so many parents, children and siblings are incarcerated, leaving gaping holes in their families and in the social fabric. In the Book of Deuteronomy, we read “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” – “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (16:20). The Jewish sages taught that the word “tzedek” is repeated to convey that justice is really only attained when it is sought through just means.

If our criminal justice system is meant to uphold a collective commitment to justice, it cannot do so through the mass incarceration of people of color and the rending of families and communities.

Nor can we tolerate a criminal justice system that is concerned more with punishing criminals than with offering them a chance for rehabilitation. The value of redemption lies at the core of Christianity and of Judaism: “He provided redemption for his people; / he ordained his covenant forever – / holy and awesome is his name” (Psalm 111:9).

Jesus taught that we are of inestimable worth (Luke 12:7). All of us are worth more than our mistakes; why then do so many people who have already made amends for their crimes find themselves stigmatized in our society and barred forever from housing and employment?

There is another path.

We can choose a criminal justice system that puts justice at its core, favors rehabilitation over incarceration and keeps communities together. Achieving such a system — one that truly lives up to the values enshrined in our religious texts and teachings — will not be easy, and we may not always agree on how best to proceed. But we find ourselves agreeing that our country can do better.

We must not let this critical moment pass. Now is the time for righteous and courageous action to reform our criminal justice system.

(Jonah Dov Pesner directs the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Barrett Duke is vice president for public policy, Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission)

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