(December 21, 2018 / JNS) With U.S. President Donald Trump’s signing of criminal-justice reform legislation on Friday afternoon—just hours before Congress was to officially start its holiday break—he achieved a rare bipartisan legislative victory after a particularly volatile week.
The legislation overwhelmingly passed in the Senate on Tuesday night.
The FIRST STEP Act would lower the number of inmates in federal prisons; allow judges more options in sentencing convicts for nonviolent crimes, including drug offenses; and increase rehabilitation programs for those released.
Even though Jewish inmates comprise a very small portion of the American prison population, some Jewish groups and activists have been working for years on such reform. Many have also credited Trump’s Jewish son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner for spearheading the current legislation.
Marc Levin, vice president of criminal-justice policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, told JNS that although “there is nothing in the bill concerning hate crimes,” the American Jewish community stands to benefit from it.
“Many provisions, such as ensuring that prisoners are housed within 500 miles of their families, will benefit prisoners and families of all faiths, including those who are Jewish,” he said.
The legislation would only affect federal inmates—some 180,789 Jews out of the 2.1 million prisoners nationwide. According to the Aleph Institute, which is working with the Texas Public Policy Foundation to advocate for criminal-justice reform, Jews make up less than 1 percent of overall U.S. inmate population.
Rabbi Menachem Katz, the Aleph Institute’s director of prison and military outreach, told JNS that the organization “applauds” the passage of the Senate version in that it will help Jewish inmates “reintegrate into society.”
He declined to comment whether or not the Surfside, Fla.-based nonprofit—which is, according to its mission statement, “dedicated to assisting and caring for the well-being of members of specific populations that are isolated from the regular community”—has lobbied Congress on this effort.
While Katz said the act is “not a Jewish bill,” the Aleph Institute has been motivated to advocate for the sweeping overhaul by Jewish values, such as “Love your fellow Jew,” and that the Torah does not consist of the concept of prisons because people should be able to help those who do wrong become productive members of society.
Can the new legislation help Pollard?
Another group supporting the FIRST STEP Act is the National Council of Young Israel.
“With over 2,000,000 people in American prisons, including 181,000 in federal penitentiaries, we cannot ignore the need for sensible criminal-justice reforms that aim to lower the recidivism rate, and seek to ensure a smooth and successful re-entry into society for non-violent offenders upon their release,” said NCYI President Farley Weiss.
“The notion of giving people second chances has a strong basis in Judaism; the concept of teshuvah and enabling people to repent for their wrongdoings plays a central role in our faith,” he continued. “President Trump took a step in the right direction on this issue and demonstrated his commitment to blazing a path to reintegration for those who seek it.”
Weiss added that, in light of this effort, Trump should also ease the parole restrictions of Jonathan Pollard, a former intelligence analyst who served three decades in prison for spying for and giving classified information to Israel.
Pollard’s conditions under the U.S. Parole Commission, since being released in 2015, include remaining in New York City for at least five years unless granted permission to travel outside. The president considered allowing Pollard to attend the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, but that did not materialize, although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly raised Pollard’s case in his meetings with Trump.
Liberal Jewish groups have also been advocating for criminal-justice reform. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has been outspoken on the issue for some time.
Earlier this year, the House passed its own version of the FIRST STEP ACT, which was much more limited in reform than the recent Senate version. Liberal Jewish groups strongly criticized that version.
“We are deeply disappointed by the House of Representatives’ pursuit of the misguided FIRST STEP Act,” the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said at the time. “The Reform Jewish movement, united with our partners and allies in the civil-rights community, firmly believes that sentencing reform must be included in any effective attempt to reform our criminal-justice system.”
Similarly, other progressive groups criticized the earlier House version.
Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights are among groups that signed a joint letter opposing the House version.
Thus far, liberal Jewish groups have not taken a stance on the new law.
At the signing in the Oval Office, one of the people standing near the president mentioned that Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was “fond of saying that ‘the miracle of life was not just in its beginning, but the capacity to begin again.’ ”