During this week’s State of the Union speech, the president touted a rare bipartisan victory – the passage of criminal justice reform. Congress passed, and the president signed, a law that reduces the sentences for some non-violent offenders in federal prisons, along with other reforms to the system, including banning the shackling of pregnant inmates.
In our world of extreme political polarization, the First Step Act from last December is an outlier, garnering overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans. There is a growing consensus on all sides that mass incarceration is a problem and the criminal justice system needs serious reform.
The way we look at crime and punishment in America could benefit from a study of Jewish sources. In Judaism a high value is placed on the idea of teshuvah, repentance, the idea that a person can change his or her ways and move to a path of rehabilitation. With teshuvah, most offenses can be overcome with sincere contrition and recompense given to the offended party.
The American criminal justice system has historically focused on retribution and removing offenders from society, whereas the Jewish system sees the community as an important aspect to the criminal’s path to redemption. Prisons, unfortunately, often serve as schools where inmates learn how to be better criminals.
How would our system change if instead of sending people to jail for most non-violent crimes, we set up robust programs of restorative justice, where these people were required to make up for the wrong they committed? How would our society benefit if instead of spending vast amounts of money on jails, we created educational and vocational programs to help prevent recidivism in criminals?
Mass incarceration is a vast and complex problem, which will require all kinds of solutions from changes in the way prosecutors handle cases to sentencing reform. The First Step Act is just that, a beginning. In fact, most of the work in criminal justice reform is happening at the state and local level, where that vast majority of the prison population resides.
How we approach justice says a lot about what kind of society we want to be. Are we a nation that believes in second chances? Do we take responsibility as a community for rehabilitating those who have committed crimes? These questions will continue to guide us as we work to build a better and more just America.