The Jewish community has traditionally been a strong partner in fighting for racial justice throughout the United States. Jews and Jewish organizations have been champions of the civil rights movement, efforts to end institutionalized and de facto segregation, educational reform aimed at righting inequality in the classroom, and ensuring the effectiveness and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The legacy of this proud history should now inform Jewish involvement in reforms focusing on the issue of mass incarceration.
Statistics show that there are 12 black prisoners for every white prisoner in New Jersey and that the impact of this situation is felt heavily in the African-American communities. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 22,452 people were imprisoned in the state in 2014, the majority serving time for low-level and nonviolent crimes. More young people are entering the criminal justice system than are receiving disciplinary measures in school and being guided and mentored toward a path of higher learning. The disproportionate imprisonment of people of color and poor people leads to the perpetuation of societal stereotypes and a continuation of the ills of life in our inner cities.
As it has historically done, the Jewish community must continue in its commitment to the role prescribed in sacred texts: that of “rodfei tzedek,” pursuers of justice, concentrating our efforts on creating a system that moves young people who are arrested for low-level offenses through a transformative program that ensures their successful reentry into society. Such a system can include educational and job training programs, access to medical and mental health care, and treatment for substance abuse where appropriate. Supportive programs can be provided before and after release from incarceration to enable effective and smooth transition to the workforce. The access to public assistance — such as SNAP benefits and subsidized housing — must be ensured.
The community is invited to fully explore these issues at “Building One Community: Criminal Justice Reform and the Jewish Response,” a Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ program organized with New Jersey’s U.S. attorney, Paul Fishman, on Wednesday, April 6, at 7 p.m. on the Aidekman campus in Whippany.