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On Yom Kippur: Criminal justice reform for a new year

A prisoner walks into his cell in the new high-security prison known as "El Pozo" in Ilama, Honduras, on Sept. 20, 2016. Photo courtesy of Honduras Presidency/Handout via REUTERS
A prisoner walks into his cell in the new high security prison known as "El Pozo" in Ilama, Honduras, on Sept. 20, 2016. Photo courtesy of Honduras Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

A prisoner walks into his cell in the new high-security prison known as “El Pozo” in Ilama, Honduras, on Sept. 20, 2016. Photo courtesy of Honduras Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

(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)

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  • I think the concept of restorative justice is quite sound, a definitive biblical teaching. While true that certain transgressors absolutely must be incarcerated for public safety’s sake, we could use a better model for steering convicted criminals into restorative programs. Though some decry it, Prison Fellowship Ministries works effectively within the present system to reframe the mindset of those who are presently ensconced in the U.S. penal system.

  • Thank you for this article. I’m new in my awareness of these issues and so appreciate learning the teachings of these rabbis . Now I can look them up and read further. I’m deeply moved by the work of Greg Boyle, S.J. at Homeboy Industries in LA . Thank you for this timely peace. Mary Rakow, novelist

  • “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.”

    This is correct. In the early 1990s I worked as a case manager with inmates who were scheduled for release within 6 months. I wrote and premiered a program to introduce responsibility to the inmates. A common denominator in the population was a belief that their crime was not their fault. With only 2 or 3 exceptions, inmates did not accept responsibility for their crimes. I was shocked to discover that level of avoidance. Unless there has been a radical change in inmate thinking in the past 20 years, that is the place to start.

    Punishment once released in the former of job, housing and voting discrimination must end. By recent law, Minnesota does not allow employment applications to inquire about criminal records. That question must wait till the first interview.

  • I absolutely agree with you. While I am not Jewish, I have great respect for the Jewish values of repair of the world and expressing faith with good deeds. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Everyone is worthy of understanding, compassion, and inclusion in our communities to the fullest extent that this is possible.

    If there are stories that we have trouble empathizing with, then we should try harder to understand people’s stories. Your example of your own story with your colleague is an absolutely beautiful example of moving past judgment into some kind of understanding. As a community, If it is hard for us to find empathy in our hearts, then we should try to really listen and understand.

    It is understandable that some things may initially be hard to empathize with. We have all had different lives, different experiences, and we all have different personalities. But deep down we really are all very much the same.

    As a child, our math teacher would encourage us to write our multiplication problems straight up and down on the paper in dark pencil. Somehow, many of us felt embarrassed that we needed to do this and so people tended to write them at weird angles in very light pencil. We were ashamed of what we didn’t know right away. “Look,” he would basically tell us, “Be proud that you can’t multiply two digit numbers in your head! Work through it and you will get the right answer. Write them straight up and down in dark pencil so you can get there!”

    In a similar way, we are often unsure of ourselves as a community about issues and people’s situations that we don’t immediately understand. We aren’t always sure what people really need to get better or why they are the way they are. This is not something to be ashamed of. We need to start with openness and empathy so we can listen and find out from people themselves what would be helpful to them.

    What is not something we can be proud of is just turning away from the problems and hoping they will go away. So many people are really suffering and things could get better. Humane changes that make things better for all of us are very possible. But we need to really engage and listen and be open to new things.

    Thank you for this absolutely beautiful piece.

  • You have provided a good insight based on real world experience, and your stance that inmates need to embrace a mindset of personal accountability I think is critical and sound, it may be the first brick in a foundation laid for a fresh start. And Minnesota’s policy with respect to job applications is also a fair approach. If an applicant gets as far as an interview, when queried, he/she can make a case for themselves on a face to face basis, rather than being cast aside prejudicially by the faceless and necessarily shallow nature of an application form.

  • Thank you.

    Exactly how the “*Ban the Box” campaign was expected to work. Anecdotal evidence says it’s been successful.

    *That slogan refers to the box on the application to check for a felony conviction.

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