In this week’s parsha we read, “Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:19). It is reasonable and necessary to punish crime, in the interest of public safety. But for some offenders—especially drug offenders—our current laws disproportionately punish low-level offenders without improving public safety.
Just weeks after Attorney General Holder highlighted the issue of felon disenfranchisement, members of Congress have introduced the Democracy Restoration Act, which would restore voting rights in federal elections to 4.4 million Americans who are out of prison and living in the community. Read more…
March is the Juvenile Justice Month of Faith and Healing, organized by the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. This month is an opportunity for the faith community to address the way in which our society holds children accountable when they are convicted of crimes.
Did you know…
- Children sentenced to life in prison are among the most vulnerable members of our society. Nearly 80% of such children reported witnessing violence in their homes.
- The racial discrepancy of youth sentenced to life without parole is massive. African American children receive such a sentence at 10 times the rate of white children.
- 77% of girls sentenced to life without parole say they have been sexually abused.
- Children housed in adult prisons are eight times more likely to commit suicide; five times more likely to be sexually assaulted; two times more likely to be assaulted by staff; and 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon compared to children in juvenile facilities. Read more…
The repeal bill now heads to the state Senate, where passage is somewhat less certain, and then to Governor Maggie Hassan, who has pledged to sign it. Still, its passage out of the state House is significant. The New Hampshire House, with 400 members, is the largest state legislative chamber in the country and is famously unruly. This crucial bill nonetheless passed with a strong bipartisan majority. Rep. Renny Cushing (D-Hampton), whose father was murdered in 1988, spearheaded passage of the bill, powerfully stating, “If we let those who kill turn us into killers, then evil triumphs.”
Should the bill pass the state Senate, New Hampshire would become the 19th state to abolish the death penalty, and the seventh to do so in the last several years. Much of this momentum comes from an increasing awareness across the ideological spectrum of the problems with the death penalty. Advocates have long pushed for repeal in the Granite State, whose famous motto, “Live Free or Die,” might not appropriately frame this particular debate. Still, given the important political status of New Hampshire, this debate has the potential to reverberate far beyond this corner of New England. While the debate over the death penalty is primarily a state matter, we should all be concerned about how this debate plays out in each state.
Reform Jews are staunch opponents of the death penalty. The rabbis of the Talmud established a series of legal requirements surrounding the death penalty so intentionally complex and difficult to satisfy as to make carrying out this ultimate punishment virtually impossible. Reform Jews have more formally opposed capital punishment since 1959, “believing that, there is no crime for which the taking of human life by society is justified, and that it is the obligation of society to evolve other methods in dealing with crime… in the spirit of the Jewish tradition of tshuva (repentance).”
Repeal of the death penalty is a crucial social justice issue—and we hope that our friends in New Hampshire continue to advocate for a less vengeful and more just society.
Purim, on the one hand, is an easy holiday to love. There are costumes, hamentashen, a fun story and songs; we are obligated to have a good time. On the other hand, Purim is also controversial—and one such area worth highlighting is the role of capital punishment in the Purim narrative. Since the era of rabbinic Judaism, capital punishment has been practically impossible under Jewish law, and Reform Jews have long formally opposed the death penalty, “believing that, there is no crime for which the taking of human life by society is justified.” But on Purim, we come across the death penalty several times as we read the Megillah.
Attorney General Eric Holder has made an effort in recent months to elevate key civil rights issues, especially those issues affecting our nation’s broken criminal justice system. One unexpected issue the Attorney General has chosen to highlight is the crucial problem of felon disenfranchisement. Amidst a backdrop of increasing bipartisan support for sentencing reform on Capitol Hill, increased knowledge about the racial disparities of mandatory minimum sentences, new questions about capital punishment and other significant developments in the areas of criminal justice and civil rights, the issue of felon disenfranchisement is another moral challenge of our time—and one gaining bipartisan momentum.
Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Smarter Sentencing Act by a bipartisan 13-5 vote, sending the bill to the Senate floor. The SSA, as the ACLU put it, is the most “significant piece of criminal justice reform to make it to the Senate floor in several years.” As Reform Jews committed to humane punishment and to addressing the root causes of crime, we join with other advocates of criminal justice reform in applauding the bill and encouraging the Senate to pass it.
The death penalty is back in the news with increasing frequency —and there is, in fact, a reason. See if you can piece this together:
- In Ohio, it took Dennis B. McGuire 25 excruciatingly painful minutes, from the time he was injected with fatal drugs to the time he was declared dead. The state used a new drug combination in its execution of Mr. McGuire, and received court approval to proceed despite defense attorneys asking for a delay, “in fear of the unused drug causing ‘air hunger,’ inflicting ‘terror and agony’ upon their client.”
- In Virginia, the House of Delegates passed a bill that would mandate death by electrocution in many cases, while Missouri and Wyoming have flirted with reintroducing the firing squad.
- The Supreme Court issued a last-minute, temporary stay of the execution of a Missouri inmate, Herbert Smulls, in the hours between President Obama’s State of the Union Address Tuesday evening and the man’s scheduled execution at 12:01 Wednesday morning, following the state’s refusal to disclose where they obtained a lethal-injection drug.
- The first four executions of 2014 are being carried out by Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Texas, respectively. Each is using a different lethal injection procedure.