On April 6, 120 community members turned out to hear an in-depth exploration of the dark side of the criminal justice system — what one panelist said were “issues that we thought we’d resolved 50 years ago” — as well as emerging signs of “opportunity and hope.”
“Criminal Justice Reform: Formulating the Jewish Response,” which took place at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany, was sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Panelist Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of the NJ Institute for Social Justice, spelled out the troubling statistics: With over 2.3 million people currently incarcerated nationwide — many for drug offenses and less violent crimes — and a ratio of 12 black prisoners for every white prisoner in New Jersey, he said, Americans are witnessing a disturbing and costly trend experienced disproportionately in the African-American communities.
Unless changes to the system are made, added Lauren Jones, assistant director of legal affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, it can be projected that one in three black male babies born today will become incarcerated at some point in his life, and that one in 13 African-Americans will not vote as a result of felony disenfranchisement laws.
With increasing controversy over the issues of racial profiling, high prison rates, polarization and stereotyping, and strained relations between police and community members in many locations, “racial issues that we thought we’d resolved 50 years ago have emerged again,” said moderator Jim Johnson, founding member of NJ Communities Forward, former chair of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, and former undersecretary of the U.S. Treasury for enforcement.
“Civil rights isn’t a history lesson, but rather a current event,” agreed Jones, “and criminal justice is a top issue of our time.”
The discussion opened with comments from Dquan Rosario, a native of inner-city Newark who, after serving 10 years in federal prison for dealing crack, graduated from a progressive re-entry program driven by the office of the U.S. attorney for New Jersey. Upon his release from prison, Rosario said, “I came out to a halfway house with no plan, until I learned of the re-entry program.
“They pointed me in the right direction and helped me get jobs and training; they never let me settle and helped me become more than I thought I could.” Now a certified EMT, Rosario said he is grateful for the resources and helpful hand extended by the program. “They had more confidence in me than I had in myself, and without their backing and constant push, I don’t know where I’d be,” he said.
According to panelist Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney for NJ who spearheaded the re-entry program three years ago, “95 percent of people in federal prison will eventually get out and will have to reacclimate to the whole world. It costs $30,000-$40,000 a year to keep someone in jail, so anything we can do to change that dynamic is positive.”
Having brought nearly three dozen former federal prisoners through the re-entry program so far with a much lower rate of recidivism than would otherwise be experienced — thanks to the program’s provision of employment opportunities, training, financial assistance, and other support for prisoners and their families — “it’s among the most inspiring work that our office is doing,” Fishman said. He added: “It’s also work that’s moved judges and softened the hardest hearts among prosecutors.”
Embracing the Jewish ideal of tikun olam — making the world a better place — Fishman said, “We’re changing the way we think about sentencing, prosecuting, and how long is appropriate to serve for a crime and realizing that it’s okay for some people not to go to jail.”
In accordance with that view, said Haygood, “we’re encouraging treatment rather than sentencing.”
The ADL’s Lauren Jones also expressed support for such an approach. “Studies of states that have passed prison reform have shown that you can lower the number of people in jail and reduce the crime rate,” said Jones, who also advocated “compassion rather than incarceration for people with drug issues.”
In discussing a system that is guilty of having meted out disproportionate punishment for some and in need of more programs like Fishman’s, panelists did agree that there have been encouraging signs. “What’s happened in New Jersey in the last 15 years is a great example,” said Cuqui Rivera, board secretary of the Latin Action Network of NJ, which advocates for criminal justice reform, employment, housing, and other issues affecting the Latino community. “Back then, there were over 31,000 people in our state prisons, but now there are fewer than 20,000, a 31 percent reduction, and New Jersey stands as a national leader in significantly reducing its state prison population.”
And thanks to positive steps that cities like Newark have taken to rebuild trust and reform the way police interact with community members, Haygood said, “Newark is a city to watch as it relates to national criminal justice reform. The system is in a pivotal moment of crisis, opportunity, and hope.”
From schools and community centers to houses of worship of all denominations, Fishman said, his office is focused on community outreach. “We hope more and more individuals and businesses will volunteer and be willing to take a chance on those re-entering because the experience really snowballs.”
“Overall, we often say that all Jews are responsible for each other — but all Americans are responsible for our American brothers and sisters,” said Mark Dunec, the CRC’s partnership committee chair, who offered opening and closing comments.
“It was a very interesting and informative discussion…,” said attendee Ellen Fox of Denville, adding that “the panelists’ messages ring true — we all need to love and help one another.”