Sentencing Reform Needs Orthodox Leadership


President Donald Trump’s decision to commute the prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, the kosher slaughterhouse executive who served eight years in prison on bank fraud and money laundering charges, resulted in a vigorous communal discussion, especially within the Orthodox community.

“The injustice of Mr. Rubashkin’s grossly excessive 27-year sentence was readily apparent to any fair-minded individual who reviewed the facts of the case,” Agudath Israel of America said in a prepared statement following the commutation.

However, my eyes were opened to the broader implications stemming from Rubashkin’s release. In this country there are criminals behind bars who committed heinous crimes and deserve to be there. Yet at the same time, there are huge numbers of people in prison who, having received draconian sentences either for crimes that they did not commit or due to Federal Sentencing Guidelines, have to serve beyond what justice really demands.

While programs such as the Innocence Project at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo Law School have helped free many wrongly imprisoned people, unfair sentencing “destroys lives and communities and costs taxpayers exorbitant amounts of money,” according to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Civil rights groups have long called for the elimination of harsh mandatory minimum sentences imposed for low-level offenses and for judges to be given more discretion in sentencing. Congress is considering the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would lower mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and allow judges to reduce the sentences of those serving lengthy prison terms.

All of us in the Orthodox community — from Chasidic and “black hat” to centrist, modern and open — should be able to agree on the need to forge ties with our brothers and sisters in the non-Orthodox community, non-Jewish faith-based communities and African American and Hispanic groups and create a united platform to raise our collective voices to address this national problem.

The late Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel once wrote that the task of every Jew is not to make the world more Jewish, but rather to make the world more humane. Raising our collective voices in this area will help us fulfill not only a humane mandate, but create a “kiddush Hashem” — a sanctification of God’s name — and a necessary tikkun (or correction) as well.

Adena Berkowitz is co-founder of Kol HaNeshamah, an Orthodox outreach congregation in New York City.


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