The Unintended Consequences of the Push for Criminal Justice Reform and What those Who Pushed Were not Considering…
This is not just Nassau County. It will soon be a reality across the entire state come January 1, 2020.
“If you are raped in this county, violently raped by a stranger, in 15 days I’m the DA; I have to turn over your name to that person who raped you and adequate contact information for that person to get in touch with you. And if you don’t answer your cellphone when the rapist calls you, I might have to give over your address if the judge orders me to do so. And if you called your mother, if your mother was your first outcry witness because you wanted to talk to your mother after you were violently raped, now your mother’s a witness and I have to give her name and contact information over to.”
The First Step Act was initiated, drafted and spearheaded by a small group of passionate Jewish activists led by Skverer Chassid Moshe Margareten. This activism was aided by the expertise and institutional knowledge of the Aleph Institute, the leading organization caring for the Jewish incarcerated and their families. The bill, which garnered national attention, will have a transformative impact on the American criminal justice system, affecting tens of thousands of inmates, both Jewish and non-Jewish. (Photo: Martin Falbisoner/Wikimedia Commons)
The U.S. Senate’s overwhelming 87-12 approval last week of the First Step Act, the most sweeping package of criminal justice reform in a generation, was lauded by those on the right and the left as a much-needed step in the right direction for the U.S. criminal justice system. The bill will expand early transfer to home confinement via participation in job training and re-entry programming designed to reduce recidivism; modify some mandatory sentencing laws; and ensure that the incarcerated stay more closely connected to their families by placing them within 500 miles of their homes, among other steps.
The bill went back to the House of Representatives on Thursday, where it passed by a massive 358-36 majority, and the next day was signed into law by President Donald Trump—who had been vocal in his support for the legislation—in the Oval Office.
The legislation’s path to fruition, however, was not as simple as it might appear. “For the bill’s supporters, Tuesday’s vote was the culmination of a five-year campaign on Capitol Hill that only months ago appeared to be out of reach … ,” reported The New York Times. “Much of the same coalition that pushed the First Step Act had rallied around similar legislation, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 … .” That bill was shelved in the run-up to the 2016 elections when it wasn’t allowed on the Senate floor for a vote, dealing a blow to its longtime backers.
But who are these “bill’s supporters” the Times references—members of the “same coalition” that has been working at this for years?
The little-known answer is that the First Step Act was initiated, drafted and spearheaded by a small group of passionate Jewish community activists led by Moshe Margareten, a member of the Skverer Chassidic group. This activism was aided by the expertise and institutional knowledge of the Aleph Institute, the leading organization caring for the Jewish incarcerated and their families. The bill, which garnered national attention, will have a transformative impact on the American criminal justice system, affecting tens of thousands of inmates, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
It was at the urging of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—that Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, executive director of the Shul of Bal Harbour, Fla., founded the Aleph Institute in 1981. The Rebbe was a strong and early pioneer of criminal justice reform, seeing a fundamental flaw in incarceration disconnected from re-education and rehabilitation.
“If a person is being held in prison, the goal should not be punishment but rather to give him the chance to reflect on the undesirable actions for which he was incarcerated,” the Rebbe said in Yiddish in a 1976 talk. “He should be given the opportunity to learn, improve himself and prepare for his release when he will commence an honest, peaceful, new life, having used his days in prison toward this end.
“In order for this be a reality a prisoner must be allowed to maintain a sense that he is created in the image of God; he is a human being who can be a reflection of Godliness in this world. But when a prisoner is denied this sense and feels subjugated and controlled; never allowed to raise up his head, then the prison system not only fails at its purpose, it creates in him a greater criminal than there was before. One of the goals of the prison system is to help Jewish inmates and non-Jewish inmates … to raise up their spirits and to encourage them, providing the sense, to the degree possible, that they are just as human as those that are free; just as human as the prison guards. In this way they can be empowered to improve themselves … ”
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