You never know where taking a long walk in the summertime will lead you.
Almost a year ago, my son Josh and I took a long walk on a hot summer’s day through the streets of Augusta, Georgia and across the border into South Carolina as part of the NAACP’s Journey for Justice. Over 200 Reform Rabbis joined members and supporters of the NAACP on this historic 1,000+ mile civil rights march from Selma to Washington, D.C. It was during that walk, with my son by my side and the hot Georgia sun beating down upon us, that I found a source of inspiration which ultimately led me this past week from the Georgia streets to the halls of the New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton.
During the march, we were privileged to engage in dialogue and friendship with activists who, like ourselves, dream of a better America for all people of all races, religions and orientations. We were inspired by the powerful words of Cornell Brooks, the strength of Middle Passage, the example of Keisha Thomas and the stories of so many of our fellow marchers. Each segment of the march was dedicated to a theme and ours was dedicated to the need for criminal justice reform.
We heard harrowing stories of getting stopped for “driving while black”. We heard stories of a system so biased that the same minor offense which might get a caucasian suburban child a slap on the wrist, could be life altering and almost life ending for a black, urban kid. And we heard stories of racial biases within the sentencing and prison system that do not at all reflect our American ideals of equal protection under the law.
I came away convinced that criminal justice reform was an issue that could not wait and that called out for the voice of our tradition, which teaches us to view each other as created in God’s image and to love our neighbors as ourselves. A system that denies our shared image through its biases against some, tears at the fabric of the love which God has commanded us to show one another. We cannot keep silent in the face of such institutional discrimination.
And so last March, with the help of TRUAH, I and a group of my fellow New Jersey Reform and Conservative Rabbis met with NRCAT,and the ACLU to discuss how we could bring a Rabbinic voice to criminal justice reform in New Jersey. Soon after, I found myself sitting in the hearing room of the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee testifying in favor of the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act (S.51), which would reduce the use of solitary confinement in New Jersey. This bill would end solitary confinement of more than 15 days, limit its use to prisoners who pose a risk to themselves or others, and end solitary confinement for vulnerable populations. This is an issue that affects people of color inordinately due to their percentages in the prison population.
I also gained a new friend and partner in this work, Rev. Charles F. Boyer, Pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Woodbury. This past week, at Rev. Boyer’s request, I found myself back in the same hearing room, this time to testify in favor of S.677 which would require racial and ethnic impact statements (REIS) for certain bills and regulations affecting sentencing. The REIS would serve as a tool for lawmakers to evaluate the potential disparities of proposed legislation on persons of color prior to adoption and implementation. Analogous to environmental impact statements, they assist legislators in detecting unforeseen policy ramifications before the change is adopted, rather than once they have been implemented. They are an important step towards ending the racial disparity in New Jersey’s criminal justice system.
Both bills S.51 and S.677 will be brought before the full Senate for a vote this coming Monday afternoon and the voice not just of Rabbis, but of all New Jerseyans must be heard by our lawmakers. Together we can make a push for a more fair and more just criminal justice system. You can find your Senator’s contact information here. E-mail them this weekend and call their office first thing Monday morning to express your strong support of both bills, one aimed at ending the abuse of solitary confinement and the other at combatting racial disparity.
Let’s speak out loud and clear that the journey for justice has not ended and we will continue to walk together until we reach our goal of fulfilling America’s promise and her highest values.