“Justice, justice you must pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai, your God, is giving you.”
Deuteronomy 16:20 begins with the word “tsedek,” which can also be translated as “righteousness.” Righteousness and justice are moral values central to discussions about the criminal justice system. Recently, a national group of interfaith clergy leaders convened in Washington D.C. at the invitation of The United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society to advocate among senior White House officials and in the U.S. Congress for a thorough evaluation of the entire U.S. Criminal Justice System with recommendations for substantially improving it.
Our diverse interfaith religious traditions find common ground when we speak of forgiveness and fairness: for the faith communities’ obligations to free the captive, lift up the fallen, and heal the sick. In the verses leading up to the reading at the opening of this article, the Hebrew bible calls for fairness and equity for all in the court systems, and demands empathy and mercy for those standing before the court, regardless of social or economic class.
The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011 (S.306) – NCJCA, a bill introduced by Virginia Senator Jim Webb with broad bi-partisan co-sponsorship, is under discussion by elected officials and President Obama. From across our faith traditions, geographies, political bents, gender, ethnicities, and educational backgrounds, the leaders who met in June 2011 are unified in purpose: we voice our support for justice, righteousness, fairness, empathy, mutually shared power and wise stewardship for the common good.
We strongly believe that the U.S. Criminal Justice System which incarcerates twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners at a cost of over 68 billion dollars per year is long overdue for evaluation and transformation. We must join together to rebuild and restore the lives and families of our citizens and our communities, to develop improved systems of public accountability, to reform public policies and legal frameworks that have for too long burdened budgets and communities in destructive cycles of dependence.
The group, representing Jewish, Protestant, Sikh, Roman Catholic, Quaker, and Mennonite faith traditions, collectively requested that President Obama and several leading members of Congress, including Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor, publicly support comprehensive criminal justice evaluation via the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011 (S.306).
President Obama’s officials and many Congresspersons acknowledged that a thorough assessment of the entire criminal justice system is forty-six years overdue; yet the NCJCA of 2011 was not immediately endorsed by the Obama Administration. Given the current budget debates and election campaigns in Washington, it is likely that the endorsements sought will require more advocacy; something that the group is deeply committed to pursuing.
Rabbi Ben Romer, a Balfour Brickner Rabbinic Fellow of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Rev. N. David Cooper, MDiv, MSW, CPM, Program Associate and National Trainer for the Drew University Shalom Initiative are clergypersons advocating for criminal justice reform as an essential element of responsible government.