Prison Reform: A Jewish Imperative?

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The Orthodox social justice organization Uri L'Tzedek has declared this week (on which we read in the weekly Torah portion about Joseph's release from Pharaoh's prison) to be Jewish Prison Reform Week. For anyone interested in considering this issue from an Orthodox social justice perspective, here is an article by that organization's founder and president, the indefatigable Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz:

Prison Reform: A Torah Perspective on the American Crisis (2007)

Outlining the basic state of American prisons today, and providing a brief history of the American penal system and its antecedents, Rabbi Yanklowitz then turns his attention to Biblical penal concepts, Talmudic penal law, and later rabbinic concepts of criminal justice. "Our Torah values and moral convictions place responsibility upon the American Jewish community to advocate for better conditions within prisons and for more creative solutions for rehabilitation than are currently being provided," he writes.

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Uri L'Tzedek's Prison Reform Campaign...

Jonathan Pollard, the Irvine 11, and the Mikado

Pollard-Biden

From The New York Times on Friday:

“President Obama was considering clemency [for Jonathan Pollard], but I told him, ‘Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time,’ ” Biden said during a meeting with rabbis in Boca Raton, Fla., according to the newspaper. “If it were up to me, he would stay in jail for life.”

The headline of the piece: "Obama Turns to Biden to Reassure Jewish Voters, and Get Them to Contribute, Too." That being the case, I suppose one must give credit to the Vice President for passing up an opportunity to pander to his rabbinic audience.

Pollard's case is a source of righteous outrage for some Jews, and a source of ambiguity and unease for others. Speaking personally, I believe Pollard committed a serious crime and deserved jail time. Individual citizens cannot be free to choose which nations can see classified governmental information, no matter how harmless their choice. There is a principle at stake.

Still, for all that, the sentence is vastly -- and cruelly -- out of proportion to the crime. Pollard ought not be pardoned, but he should certainly have his sentence commuted and be freed at once.

Disproportionate punishment makes a mockery of justice as much as crime does... Therefore, I also believe the punishment doled out to the Irvine 11 was excessive. I agree with my colleague Stefanie (who posted on this subject earlier today) that the students' conduct was unacceptable, but three years of probation is a very serious and constraining business indeed; these students deserved a semester of academic probation, not a criminal charge.

Jonathan Pollard and the Irvine 11: not the most natural of pairings. Yet both together bring to mind what W.S. Gilbert reminded us: the punishment should fit the crime.

Galliano Receives Slap on Wrist for Anti-Semitic Ramblings

Bigot Olympian

In honor of New York Fashion Week, it only makes sense to doff our caps to a former great, made social pariah, fashion designer. A man who could design a fabulous handbag but who thought being friends with Gisele made him G-d's gift to the world.

John Galliano, former head designer of Christian Dior, was recently sentenced by a Paris court to a suspended fine and zero jail time after his now-famous expletive-laced rant was videotaped and went viral. In it, Galliano derided Jews, praised Hitler, and in general won himself a first place ribbon in the Bigot Olympics. When Mel Gibson did the same in his puzzling diatribe, his only punishment was to have his less than flattering mugshot blasted on every TV and computer screen worldwide. Galliano, on the other hand, faced court time.

As much as I would have loved to see Galliano be served a harsh punishment from a judge for acting like an imbecile, it is pretty surprising to my American mind that he went to court for expressing his idiotic thoughts. Our first amendment rights are (usually) a wonderful thing. If you want to celebrate Festivus, fine with us. Petition the government for every American to be given a free puppy? Why not. Go off on a racist diatribe? Eh, not as cute as a puppy. But we'll let you get away with it.

Europe, it seems, has other ideas. I don't find their hate speech laws too restrictive, per se. But from a practical standpoint it does seem like a colossal waste of time and money to place every racist moron in court for running their mouths. (See this Institute for Jewish Policy Research report arguing that these laws are also ineffective.) Then again, if Galliano had made the same comments at a cafe in America, he would have walked away from there scot-free.

What do you think?

From the J-Vault: Girls Gone Wild

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This week from the J-Vault: The Delinquent Girl (1914)

Writing in the Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Communal Service, Mrs. Julius Andrews (her own first name is not listed) discusses wayward girls in Boston's juvenile justice system.

Statistics show that only about 10 per cent, of the Boston juvenile cases from 1906 to 1911 were girl offenders... But the wayward and stubborn girls are more difficult problems— only too often indicating immorality...

...Girls congregate on the streets, in low dance halls and other commercialized amusement places—free from public interference. It is in such surroundings that many of our young people, seeking diversion from miserable home conditions, begin their downward careers. In an investigation of recreational opportunities in Greater Boston, a pretty young girl naively informed us that she went to the public dances twice a week and wished she could go every night. When asked by the manager of the store whether she was escorted, she said, "No, we dance with any fellow who asks us."

Of course, the dalliances Mrs. Andrews discusses go far beyond dancing, and she notes that although it takes two to tango, society does not dole out its disapproval equally:

When the inevitable harm has been done we ostracize the girl, making reformation almost impossible, while the boy or man, if charged with his share of responsibility, easily escapes by paying a small penalty... Until the law holds man and woman equally guilty and all sex offenses are consistently punished, we shall not be able to control immorality.

Obviously the term "sex offenses" in this usage is not referring to rape and molestation, as we would use the term today -- or at least, it is not exclusively referring to sexual violence. Consensual premarital sex, it seems, is also included under the umbrella of "sex offense."

Interestingly, years before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which secured the right of women to vote in the United States, delinquency is already being blamed (in this case, by a woman) on women's rights:

In speaking to the superintendent of a well-known maternity home for unmarried mothers in regard to the causes which were responsible for girl immorality, she said: "The freedom and privileges allowed girls during the past fifty years were now bearing fruit. They had influenced for good and for evil. The mentally strong girl had benefited and is today our best standard of American womanhood, but the weaker girl and many of foreign parentage, not understanding the ethics of such freedom, fall easy preys to what is presented to them as American privilege and liberty."

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