Today marks the five-year anniversary of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), and a lot has changed in the past five years. Thanks to the ACA, the 129 million non-elderly Americans with pre-existing health conditions can no longer be denied coverage or charged more because of their pre-existing condition. Also, millions of low-income individuals are now eligible for Medicaid thanks to ACA expansion of the program. And, a March 16, 2016 Department of Health and Human Services report states that 16.4 million uninsured people have gained health insurance coverage since 2010 under the Affordable Care Act. These improvements, among many others, on the five year anniversary of the ACA are a cause to celebrate and rededicate our commitment to affordable and accessible care for all.
The United States has a mass incarceration problem. While only having 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, making us the world’s largest jailer. Between 1980 and 2012, the U.S. federal prison population rose from about 25,000 inmates to 219,000 inmates, an increase of more than 790 percent. In fact, at the end of 2013, an estimated 6,899,000 persons were under the supervision of adult correctional systems, which includes those incarcerated in prison or local jail in addition to those supervised in the community on parole or probation.
The policies that caused mass incarceration came out of a direct response to the social tumult of the 1960s and increasing crime rate of the 1970s and 1980s. The thought was that incarceration will take offenders off the streets and deter potential offenders from committing future crimes. Many today will argue that this plan worked: over the last two decades, crime has steadily declined and today the crime rate is about half of what it was in 1991 at its height. Additionally, violent crime has fallen by 51 percent since 1991. However, a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice called ”What Caused the Crime Decline,” tells us that there is no one cause for this dramatic change, but rather many factors that are responsible:
“It concludes that over-harsh criminal justice policies, particularly increased incarceration, which rose even more dramatically over the same period, were not the main drivers of the crime decline. In fact, the report finds that increased incarceration has been declining in its effectiveness as a crime control tactic for more than 30 years. Its effect on crime rates since 1990 has been limited, and has been non-existent since 2000.”
Acknowledging the severity of this problem, the RAC has long worked to reform our criminal justice system. As we approach Passover, when we retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we must remember our own redemption and think about redemption for those who are not free today. There is a Midrash that tells us that when the Egyptians drowned after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, the angels celebrated. However, God admonished them, asking “are they not my children too?!” Even though the Egyptians had enslaved the Israelites, God still recognized their humanity and that the loss of their lives was tragic. Therefore, even for those in our nation who have committed crimes, we know that they were still created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and we must remember their humanity and rededicate ourselves to repairing our broken criminal justice system.
Next month at our Consultation on Conscience conference in Washington, D.C., participants hear from Bryan Stevenson, the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative. EJI works on behalf of indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system by providing legal representation and assisting advocates and policymakers who are working to reform our criminal justice. I hope that you will join us in April as we continue this important conversation about our nation’s justice system!
Photo courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures.
By showing your generosity to the RAC on this #GivingTuesday, you demonstrate your commitment to our shared values. Today, we join charities and social justice organizations in the United States and around the world celebrate Giving Tuesday, an initiative to direct the consumer energy of “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” toward positive change.
Because study of and reading from the Torah is vital to Jewish living and life-long Jewish learning, the Torah scroll itself has always been a powerful and essential ritual object within Jewish and synagogue life. After years of traveling to our many conferences, the RAC’s Torah scroll is in need of repair – so we are making it the focus of our #GivingTuesday efforts this year.
Fairmount Temple congregant and high school student Eric Giesler joined Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk in Washington, DC at the Consultation on Conscience of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in April 2013. Eric’s participation in this conference was supported by the Darnovsky/Bonder Fund and the Maurice H. Shapiro Consultation on Conscience Fund of Fairmount Temple. We encourage you to share this post, to comment below, and to see more information about the Religious Action Center’s important work on behalf of our Reform Jewish movement in Washington, D.C. at http://rac.org
I recently had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. where I attended the Religious Action Center’s flagship policy conference, Consultation on Conscience. I spent four days listening to inspiring speakers, having meaningful discussions, and learning more than I ever thought possible. While reflecting on this incredible conference, I realized that there are three Hebrew phrases that can aid me in sharing my experiences: Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof (Justice, justice you shall pursue), L’dor Vador (From generation to generation), and im tirtzu, ein zo agada (If you will it, then it is no dream.)
The question was so simple. “What drives you to do social justice?” But the answer was so complex and varied. The themes were similar: family role models, personal experiences of injustice, a sense of responsibility and moral obligation. But each one of us had a story to tell, a piece to uncover, a truth to reveal. After 15 months of knowing the people in the room with me, I realized that maybe I didn’t really know them that well at all. And all it takes, to really get to know a person, is to ask a simple question and let their story unfold.
The disconnect is striking.
“The Jewish vote,” we were told last year, is all about support for Israel.
But here I am at the Consultation on Conscience. Israel is on the agenda, to be sure. But it’s a crowded agenda. And our friends in Washington seem to “get” that better than the pre-election press.
Attending the Religious Action Center’s (RAC) Consultation on Conscience is always immensely inspiring. Attendees are exposed to a multitude of speakers on the urgent issues of the day, as well as to social justice leaders who share their passion and their drive. At the end of the second day this year, several speakers provided me with renewed motivation to pursue this work. Rabbi Sid Schwartz offered a remedy for burnout: connecting our push for social justice to our tradition. He reminded us that Jews are “no longer the most vulnerable members of society” so that we must think beyond tribalism and embrace “the responsibility of privilege.” He urged us to implement a regular service trip to the developing world in our congregations.