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Why I Want To Speak Out for Criminal Justice Reform as a Jew

Arraignments court was not quite as I imagined. The ceilings were low, not towering and imperious, and spectators sat in scratched wooden pews behind a swinging-door gate. Defendants were brought into the room in handcuffs, entering through a side door that revealed a room full of people awaiting arraignment. The defendants and most of the people in the courtroom were black or Hispanic. The judge and all the lawyers were white.

I had come to observe arraignment proceedings as part of my fellowship with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Through the fellowship I worked at the Bronx Defenders, a public defense office serving indigent Bronx residents. Having no background in criminal justice, I had some trouble following the procedures. The cases were described through a naming code, so I didn’t understand the charge unless one of the lawyers gave some hint as the judge questioned them. The defendants stood still and silent. I watched and wondered as the judge set a bail of $1 or $2000, sentenced community service hours or a restraining order.

I noticed that often the prosecutor argued that she or he was not ready, delaying the proceedings and sending the defendant back to jail. One such defendant, a tall black man, stood with his hands behind his back glancing worriedly into the pews. His eyes caught the tear-filled gaze of a woman, who turned out to be his pregnant fiancé. The prosecutor said her evidence was not ready, and just like that the case was delayed and the man returned to jail to wait. His fiancé wiped her tears and left the courthouse, her family and their future stuck in limbo.

Though speedy trial rules require that misdemeanor charges be resolved after arraignment in 60 or 90 days, in 2014 it took an average of 140 days. For those who saw their case through to trial, it took an average of 571 days. In that time this man’s pregnant fiancé would have given birth and supported her child alone through two years of diapers and daycare.

The criminal justice system is poisoned by a cocktail of overcrowded courts with huge backlogs, prosecutorial delay tactics that subvert the legal process, and over-policing that produces huge numbers of arrests. The mayor is authorized to remedy this problem by appointing 107 Criminal Court judges, but there are currently only 73, and these judges are distributed unevenly. In 2014 Manhattan had only 16% more misdemeanor cases than Queens, but Manhattan has more than double the judges in criminal court. And so the broken system churns out broken lives and dumps them into broken communities, where they are likely to be picked up again.

The Torah knows about broken legal systems and overcrowded courts. In Deuteronomy, Moses stands before the people of Israel just before they enter the land. God has fulfilled the promise made to Abraham, Moses says, and the Israelites have grown numerous as the stars. But this has clogged the desert justice system. Distressed, Moses cries out, “I cannot bear the burden of you alone.”

The famous 11th century commentator Rashi finds this statement curious. What does it mean that a leader like Moses cannot bear the burden of the people himself? To answer the question, Rashi interprets the next line in the text: “God has multiplied you and made you numerous as the stars in the sky.”

The word translated here as “numerous” can also mean “great.” Rashi understands that the people of Israel have become greater than their judges. The Israelites’ lives are so important that if a judge could have prevented the wrongdoing of the accused, the punishment is given to the judge. As is written in Proverbs, “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor, and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will exact life for life.”

This is no “innocent until proven guilty” burden of proof. This is the judge’s life on the line. Imagine if that were the case in our legal system. How many fewer innocent people would serve life sentences? How many fewer people would end up wrongfully on death row?

A few weeks ago I attended a protest organized by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. I marched and chanted through the Upper West Side alongside Jews who care about racial equity, especially within the criminal justice system. After personal stories were shared and songs sung at the rally, my fiancé wondered: Why were Jews in particular acting around this cause? Why not march with the masses? Why speak out for criminal justice reform as Jews?

These are questions worth asking: Why must we as leaders in the Jewish community stand up to injustice occurring largely in non-Jewish communities?

Here we can learn from Moses’s plea: I cannot bear the burden alone. We cannot rely on our elected leaders to solve this problem alone. We cannot even rely on God alone. We, as inheritors of Torah, must be God’s partners in justice. We must take action when justice delayed becomes justice denied — like the Bronx Defenders, which is now suing the city for failing to uphold the constitutional right to speedy trial. We must hold our judges and our justice system to the highest standards.

In the desert, God’s message came to us through the mouth of a prophet. Today I hear its echo still, in the eyes of a man in handcuffs, glancing back at us as we sit on the bench. His message is clear: I cannot bear this burden alone.

Ariana Siegel is a second year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and is a human rights fellow this summer through T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. This piece first appeared here in Jewschool


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