Pursuing Racial Justice in our Criminal Legal System
-By Frank Goldsmith, CJJ-West Steering Committee & Statewide Board Member
Barukh atah hashem eloheinu melekh ha-olam, matir asurim.
Praised are you, Lord our God, sovereign of time and space, who releases the imprisoned.
Fairness, mercy, and compassion are at the heart of Judaism’s approach to criminal punishment. Thus we begin the traditional morning service with the birkhot ha-shachar, the morning blessings, which include praise of God for releasing those bound or imprisoned.
The birkat ha-gomel, thanking God for saving us from danger, is recited not only when we have recovered from serious illness or returned from a long journey, but also on the occasion of being released from prison (B’rakhot 54b). (It is not because the imprisonment might not have been deserved; Orthodox siddurim translations candidly thank God “who bestows goodness upon the guilty.”)
The Torah, while sanctioning punishment for the guilty, admonishes us to remember their humanity; excessive punishment is forbidden, “lest your brother be degraded before your eyes.” (Deut. 25:2-3.) The offender is still our sibling.
We imprison more people than any other Western country. In the United States, persons convicted of crimes go to prison more often, and serve longer sentences, than in our peer nations.
But criminal justice is not administered evenhandedly in America. As Rabbi Jill Jacobs has written,
We can hardly talk about criminal justice in America without talking about race. Today, an African American man has a one in three chance of spending time in prison. Despite evidence that most drug users are white, African Americans are ten times more likely to be imprisoned for drug-related offenses.
- J. Jacobs, There Shall Be No Needy, pp. 193-94 (2009).
North Carolina is no exception. Fortunately, there is an important effort underway to change how our police, courts, and prisons deal with the reality that race makes a difference. The North Carolina Task Force on Racial Equity in Criminal Justice (TREC) has just released a comprehensive report cataloging the ways in which racial disparities infect North Carolina’s system of justice and seeking to remedy them.
Governor Cooper created TREC, co-chaired by Associate Justice Anita Earls and Attorney General Josh Stein, to develop policy solutions to address racial inequities in the criminal justice system. It is comprised of a diverse cross-section of leaders from across the state, including advocates, elected officials, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and law enforcement.
On December 14, 2020, TREC issued its 166-page Report, which includes a total of 125 recommendations for improvements to be made in the criminal justice system aimed at improving racial equity. There is also a 30-page Executive Summary (which includes a chart of the recommendations).
The report pulls no punches; it begins with the obvious but often ignored truth: “Our state’s criminal justice system is not racially equitable.” It then reviews the sordid history of how, following the abolition of chattel slavery, the criminal court system was leveraged to continue the involuntary servitude of African Americans, coercing them into abusive labor conditions. The report calls out “the structural racism that has existed since our founding and continues to the present.”
The Task Force recommendations present us with opportunities to advocate to change these inequities. Some recommendations require legislative or administrative agency action for their implementation; others call for action at the level of local city and county governments and the law enforcement agencies they oversee. The report recommends funding local grassroots organizations and community safety and wellness task forces; it promotes restorative justice programs; it addresses the school-to-prison pipeline; and much more. The entire report is worthy of your review.
Carolina Jews for Justice is exploring ways in which the Jewish community, acting in partnership with organizations such as Asheville’s Racial Justice Coalition (RJC), can act to implement the recommendations; connect with your local chapter to learn more. The RJC will take a leading role; consider volunteering and subscribing to its updates.
We must heed Deuteronomy’s injunction against punishment that degrades our brothers and sisters. Racial inequity is degrading and unacceptable.