Tzedek Summit: A Jewish Perspective on Criminal Justice Reform

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This post was written by JCA member Edan Schwartz and delivered in person at the Community-wide Tzedek Summit for Economic Justice on Sunday, August 30th.

Hello everyone, my name is Edan Schwartz.  I’m co-chair of the Tikkun Olam group at Shir Tikvah, and I’m here to present to a campaign for reforming the criminal justice system in Minnesota. I’m going to start out by walking you through what specifically I mean by “reforming the criminal justice system” -- what exactly does that look like, what kind of actions can we take, who can we partner with -- and then tell you about why I feel like this is an issue worth tackling.

We live in a country which practices mass incarceration. Now, when I say mass incarceration, what do I mean by that? When we look at the national prison system as a whole, there are some 2.2 million people who are currently incarcerated. 2.2 million people... that’s a big number. That’s a number that puts our per-capita incarceration rate well above any other country in the world, and miles above any other western democracy.

Now before I go any further, I want to make one thing clear: mass incarceration in the United States is a racial issue. If we break down that 2.2 million number, we see that almost 40% of our prison population is made up of African American men. Another 20% are hispanic men.

A recent report by the ACLU determined that black men in Minneapolis are almost 9 times more likely than whites to be arrested for low-level offenses. What does that say about us as a community? What kind of values does that reflect? And most importantly, what do we do about this?

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So this is a big problem, but before we get overwhelmed here, let me suggest a possible approach we could take in chipping away at this system. Over the last few weeks of meeting with the JCA committee planning this event, I was introduced to the Second Chance Coalition. This is a large umbrella group made up of neighborhood organizers and activists, who, among other issues, are working on reforming drug sentencing guidelines in Minnesota.

So let’s talk a bit a about drug sentencing in Minnesota. The state of Minnesota imposes some of the harshest penalties for small-time drug possession in the country. The result is that ¼ of our prison population is made up of drug offenders. Combine that with law enforcement that systematically targets people of color -- think back on that ACLU report -- and we have a real problem.

And make no mistake - this is an economic justice issue. When fathers, mothers, and bread-winners are taken away from their children in disproportionate acts of “tough justice”, that is an economic justice issue. When people with drug dependency issues are denied the services and environments that they need succeed in our economy, that is an economic justice issue.

But the question remains, why is this campaign the one our community should focus on? And specifically, why should we as Jews invest in a campaign for criminal justice reform.

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I’ll try to answer those question here, but let me step back for a minute, and tell you a little bit about how I personally became involved in this issue.

Every year, my family does a big passover seder -- we’re talking 50-some people here. And for the last few years, I have been voluntold (yes, “voluntold” -- it’s a good term, you use it) to lead our Schwartz family passover seders .

As much as I’m intimidated every year by the prospect of shepherding such a large and lively group, every year I feel more and more like the passover experience is identifying to me as a Jew. And by that I mean -- well, what does it mean to be a Jew? The Passover story tells us that to be a Jew means that we were slaves in Egypt. It also tells us that the fight against systems of oppression must be fought and re-fought in every generation, b’chol dor va’dor.

So that is why I felt it was a good investment of my time to join JCA in researching a concrete, Jewish response to modern day systems of oppression. So that at next year’s seder, the conversation can be less abstract, and more about things that we can actually accomplish in the coming year.

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Now I’ll be blunt with you. The campaign to reform drug sentencing guidelines could be a tough one -- there are some powerful interests working against us. But the case I want to make to you is this: as a community, we win this issue, by working on this issue. When we build relationships with the black community, and learn what it means to be an ally, that’s a win on this issue. When we engage in hard conversations about race, that’s a win on this issue.

That is to say, while the issue of drug sentencing reform is really important, what motivates me to speak on this issue today is the chance for us in the Jewish community to invest in our capacity to organize around race issues.

We like to talk a lot about the role of the Jewish community in the civil rights movement. But this is not a history lesson -- the civil rights movement is now. And if we want to be a part of history, we need to invest in our ability to think clearly and act with intention on racial justice issues.

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So I would like to propose to you that racially targeted mass incarceration in Minnesota is a Jewish issue, and an issue that we should invest in as a community. Why? Because we were slaves in Egypt. We were the other. Our lives did not matter. Our names were not said.

But now we are in a position of influence. We can stand as allies, in solidarity with the black community, with communities working for a more humane criminal justice system. We can pray with our feet, each of us standing before our community to say “Here I am”, “hinneini”, and I’m ready to act. 

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