In March our 11th and 12th graders went to Washington DC to participate in the L'taken Social Justice Seminar, a program by the Religious Action Center that empowers teens to learn about issues that they care about and then advocate to their representatives and senators on the Hill. A few our teens wrote this speech about Criminal Justice Reform below, which they presented at Senator Elizabeth Warren's office.
Hello, my name is Nathan Lanza, and this is Mia Barr, Anna Singer, and Seth Turk. We are constituents from Massachusetts and are very strong believers in second chances for everyone, so we are here to urge Senator Warren to support laws creating fairer sentences, improving prison practices, and encouraging successful re-entry into society.
Our country was founded on the premise that all men are created equal. This premise, however, has never been fully applied to anyone who isn’t a white male, especially in our criminal justice system. Over-criminalization and mass incarceration have overwhelmingly affected people of color, especially in regards to nonviolent drug offenses. One in every three black males born today is expected to serve time in prison, compared to only one in seventeen white males. Black men, however, are no more likely to use or sell illicit drugs than white men. While we affirm the importance of combatting the problem of illegal drug use and sale, we also believe that substance abuse must be treated as a public health problem, not a criminal behavior one. The harsh mandatory minimums that currently exist for drug crimes create a justice system that is focused more on punishment instead rehabilitation. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was a step in the right direction, but there is always more work to be done to create a more just society.
Once released, prisoners continue to face significant obstacles as they try to re-enter society. The lack of well-organized anti-recidivism programs in many prisons mean that formerly incarcerated individuals do not have the vocational or interpersonal skills necessary to find jobs after prison. Even if they do have these, they frequently find themselves discriminated against by employers. With few job opportunities, these individuals often return to criminal behavior. Once they do, they are often thrown back in prison only to begin the entire cycle of the criminal justice system again. Comprehensive reforms are necessary at all stages of the criminal justice system in order to eliminate racial and ethnic bias, improve rehabilitation and re-entry preparation, and ensure that justice is issued in a way that truly conforms to our values.
The RAC was formed from the Civil Rights Movement, walking hand in hand with Martin Luther King, Jr. and people of color, we stood with people of color throughout the entire Civil Rights Movement and we shouldn’t stop there which is why we are here today. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “The exodus began but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than it was for a negro to cross certain university campuses”. This verbal representation of everyday life for people of color during the Civil Rights Movement is a perfect example of why the Jewish people need to continue stand in solidarity with people of color because we have stood with them for a long time before. It is our duty as the Jewish people to fight for the legal system to be just and fair to people of color. People of color of are prosecuted because of their skin tone, and stereotypes based on their skin tone the same way jewish people were prosecuted for things such as their religion, and their physical features such as their nose, or hair. We as Jews have faced oppression before, such as in the Holocaust, Tsarist Russia, and even today combatting the anti-semitism that has risen in our society. We have felt alone and isolated in these times of pain, and corruption, so we need to be there for them so they don't feel alone, or afraid anymore which is how the legal system is disproportionately making people of color feel.
I recently read a Rolling Stone article about a mother of two and a recovering prescription drug addict Jennifer Lockwood. In 2009 Jennifer Lockwood was sentenced to 15 years as a plea bargain opposed to the original 25 year minimum given to a person with over 28 grams of possession. She was arrested on site after incorrectly ordering too many Lortab pills. The author says that “invalid possession of just seven pills… triggered three years in prison.” It was here I questioned how Lockwood became addicted in the first place due to prior knowledge of certain pills. I learned that, like thousands of Americans, Lockwood became addicted due to over prescribed pain medication from a professional doctor. The reason this one story resonated so deeply within my moral core was because of the undeniable disregard towards the emotional state of Lockwood and that of her family, knowing that it was not her fault she was addicted in the first place and that the whole missdemeanor was a misconception. Instead of seeking rehabilitation or even simply listening to Lockwood it was immediately decided that Lockwood was a danger to herself and those around her. As a son with a present mother who works with people who tend to have addictions I know that not all people who have addictions are “bad” people. I am a 17 year old young man who is educated enough to see this is wrong and it is both frustrating and preposterous to me that grown and educated Judges can't do the same.
In the 114th Congress, significant criminal justice reform bills such as S. 2123 and H.R. 3713 and were introduced and successfully voted out of committee with strong bipartisan support, although they did not receive a vote on the House or Senate floor. The bills would include:
- Reduced mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses
- Increased discretion of judges to sentence below the mandatory minimum in certain cases
- Made the mandatory minimum reductions and the Fair Sentencing Act provisions retroactive and require that a judge approve every retroactive reduction
- Reformed the juvenile justice system by making it easier for juvenile records to be sealed and expunged and by eliminating juvenile solitary confinement in most cases
- Offered pathways for individuals to end their sentences in halfway houses or in home confinement if they participate in anti-recidivism and re-entry programs
- Added new mandatory minimums for interstate domestic violence and arms export violations.
As constituents of Massachusetts, we urge Senator Warren to support the reintroduction of legislation like the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act and the Sentencing Reform Act to create a more just society.
Inspired by our teens and want to make a difference? You can do any of these three things to help repair the world:
1.You can call your representative right now to support Criminal Justice Legislation! All you have to do is call the Congress Switchboard at 202-224-3121. You can easily use the last section of this speech (starting at "In the 114th Congress") as a script.
2. Want to go on a similar experience? Talk to Sandy Aronson about the Consultation on Conscience, the Religious Action Center's flagship social justice conference!
3. You can Donate to our Youth Engagement Fund to support teens who want to turn their passions into action!