As he helped plan “Building One Community: Criminal Justice Reform and the Jewish Response” — a forum to be held Wednesday, April 6, in Whippany — Paul Fishman, U.S. attorney for New Jersey, said he was inspired by his upbringing as a member of Temple Sholom (now Temple Avodat Shalom) in River Edge, where he grew up.
Joining the federal prosecutor on the panel will be Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of the NJ Institute for Social Justice; the moderator will be James Johnson, former chair of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School and former undersecretary for enforcement at the U.S. Treasury.
Fishman discussed his commitment to criminal justice reform in a March 22 phone interview with NJ Jewish News.
NJJN: What is the “Jewish response” to criminal justice reform and what makes it Jewish?
Fishman: For the six and a half years I have been the U.S. attorney, the work we have done in prosecuting people and in trying to prevent crime, in doing criminal justice reform, and in dealing with former offenders trying to reintegrate themselves in society — all that is part of tikun olam. That is the Jewish response. It is something that has been ingrained in me since I was a kid — to make the world a better and safer place. Then there is the commandment to love thy neighbor, which is a central tenet of the Jewish faith. I think that motivates a lot of us who do this work, whether we are Jewish or not.
NJJN: Does the notion of mandatory minimum sentences, even for those convicted of nonviolent drug crimes, principally affect people of color who have been incarcerated?
Fishman: They have certainly been disproportionately affected by the way these policies have been implemented.
NJJN: When inmates convicted of nonviolent drug crimes are released, are they more dangerous than when they went in?
Fishman: Some are and some aren’t, particularly if they come from backgrounds where they didn’t have access to education, housing, and other opportunities available to the rest of us. I asked the people in my office and in the federal courts in Newark to start a reentry program to give some of these people returning from federal prison a mechanism to get the tools and have the support they need to make a change in their lives….
When folks come out of prison, people from my office visit those who are most at risk to be repeat offenders. We tell them they will spend several years on supervised release that is like parole, and we give them an option: to come to reentry court and report to a judge about what they are doing — whether they need a job, how it’s going, how their families are. We will help them find a place to live, find a job, get therapy, or whatever training they want and whatever else they need to become higher functioning. We say, ‘If you can do this for 52 weeks, stay out of trouble, you will get a year off your supervised release.’
NJJN: Has this program affected recidivism rates?
Fishman: Of the 30 people who have been in the program in the past three years, 12 have graduated and have not been rearrested. We are graduating another five or six at the end of April. We have had five who have reoffended, which is way lower than you might have expected from this population.
NJJN: Are these people violent offenders?
Fishman: Yes. You have to be a drug dealer or a violent felon to qualify for this program. Most have been in gangs or organizations that have been dealing serious quantities of drugs and had access to weapons. It is not for your insider trader from Ridgewood.
NJJN: Are there alternatives to incarceration for other offenders?
Fishman: We have a pretrial program, mostly for people who are addicted. If you are accused of a federal crime and one contributing factor is an addiction issue, if you plead guilty your sentencing will be postponed long enough for you to do intensive inpatient rehabilitation, then some outpatient rehabilitation. The goal is to get them either a significantly reduced prison sentence or none at all.
NJJN: What would be the ramifications if nothing changes in the realm of criminal justice?
Fishman: There is an enormous cost to incarceration, and the risk of recidivating is enormously high, particularly if they are at the more violent end of the spectrum. If they offend again, not only is it expensive to send them back to prison, but they will leave mayhem in their wake before they get caught — and that’s not a productive thing.
NJJN: How do you answer those who criticize such programs as soft-on-crime solutions from bleeding heart liberals?
Fishman: It is not a criticism; it’s a label. You have to distinguish between some offenders and others, like the leaders of the Grape Street Crips [a Newark gang named after a street in the Watts section of Los Angeles; four of its key members were arrested last month on racketeering, gun possession, witness tampering, and drug trafficking charges]. We think they should spend the rest of their lives in prison. They are too violent and are beyond rehabilitation. They have left too much of a wake of death and destruction.
But 90 percent of the people now in prison will be getting out, and if we don’t help them, the odds are they are going to go back, and we will wind up paying for it again.
NJJN: What is your message for the people who will come to the forum?
Fishman: I want people to understand the work we do and to be supportive of legislation and reform that makes sure the criminal justice system behaves in a way that is consistent with our fundamental principles to treat people fairly and make sure that when people do something wrong they get the punishment they deserve, but no more than they deserve.