Over two-hundred state and federal judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, scholars and prison officials attended the first ever Alternative Sentencing Key Stakeholders Summit this past week to advance criminal justice reform nationwide. The summit was hosted by the Aleph Institute, the premier Jewish organization that cares for the institutionalized and their families, founded at the express direction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
“Thirty-five years ago, in Miami, FL, a young rabbi [Sholom Lipskar, founder of the Aleph Institute] took an interest that reforms be made in the criminal justice system to deal with defendants more humanely, to be aware of the impact on families, and to address the problem of reentry. He started an institution to deal with these problems. Today, we’re all the beneficiaries of that vision and that work,” said summit co-chair and former federal judge Charles Renfrew. He served as the deputy U.S. Attorney General in the Carter Administration.
The summit provided an opportunity for attendees to gain a deeper understanding of current alternative sentencing programs, including the use of mental health courts and veterans’ courts, as well as efforts aimed toward recidivism reduction. The bi-partisan group of speakers represented a range of perspectives on the issues.
“We heard from those on the right and left of the political divide, and it’s clear they are not divided on this important issue. In fact, there is an inspiring unity on prison and sentencing reform. The states are moving forward rapidly and the U.S. government is not far behind,” says Rabbi Aaron Lipskar, Executive Director of the Aleph Institute, who served as Master of Ceremonies for the summit.
Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, who serves as Aleph’s Director of Constitutional Advocacy and Religious Rights pointed out: “Well over twenty percent of the world’s prison population is right here in the U.S., but we’re only five percent of the world population. Twenty-nine percent of women that are in prison anywhere in the world are United States women— many of them single mothers. One in fourteen children has had an incarcerated parent. We are at a critical moment in history, as the nation works towards meaningful reform. Aleph is honored to be at the forefront of the effort to move the needle on this vital issue.”
U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee spoke at the event and announced he will soon introduce changes to a major judicial reform bill.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 had strong bipartisan support when it was passed out of Grassley’s committee in October by a vote of 15 to 5. But Grassley said that his new proposed modifications will address the concerns that have since been raised and should enable the legislation to reach President Obama’s desk later this year.
“We feel that we’re very, very close,” the Iowa Republican said while acknowledging the challenges the legislation has faced. “Some have invoked the specter of Willie Horton and claim that our bill is a get-out-of-jail-free card for violent criminals. This, of course, is not true.”
U.S. Senator Mike Lee, who formerly served as a U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah, echoed Grassley’s comments about the criticisms the bill has faced.
“In fact, under this reform, the status of violent offenders won’t change. They will remain ineligible for federal ‘safety valve’ relief,” Lee said. “Contrary to what many critics claim, this doesn’t absolve offenders of their crimes. Nor will it suddenly and indiscriminately release legions of violent predators into our communities.”
The Utah Republican told the summit’s participants that the new legislation is important.
“When I was a federal prosecutor in Salt Lake City, there was a young father of two young children who was caught selling three dime bag quantities of marijuana over a 72 hour period,” Lee said. Because he was carrying a weapon, he ended up a with 55-year mandatory minimum sentence.
“He will be in his 80s for selling three dime bags of pot. That’s not right, it’s not fair and it’s not just,” Lee said. “It changed my mind and as a member of Congress I’m committed to changing the law.”
Caroline Marks, Aleph’s Director of Alternative Sentencing and Policy Programs, who produced the summit, also emphasized the significance of this new legislation. “Finally there’s an enormous movement behind criminal justice reform in the U.S. There’s a recognition that tough-on-crime doesn’t deliver either public safety or fiscal responsibility,” she said. “The current Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is a phenomenal first step to creating a functional system and redressing the devastating impact on communities who are disproportionately affected by the tough-on-crime culture of the past few decades and the many completely innocent victims of the collateral consequences of this sad legacy.”
President Obama’s key advisor for justice issues, Roy Austin, told the crowd that redemption is possible after incarceration. He sat down with Glenn Martin for a thirty minute on stage conversation about the importance President Obama has placed on sentencing reform.
Martin spent six years in a New York state prison and had his own story to tell.
“I didn’t learn to point a gun until a gun was pointed at me. But while in prison I earned a college education and turned my life around. I know others can be just as successful if we reform our laws to increase opportunities for people who are accused and convicted of crimes,” Martin said. He is the founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA which is dedicated to reducing crime and cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030.
Throughout both days of the summit, the common thread among all the presentations was compassion tied with public safety.
“As judges, we have to remember that our decisions impact people’s lives. And while some people have committed crimes and certainly should be punished, most individuals don’t deserve to be punished for their whole life,” said summit co-chair Judge Bernice Donald. Judge Donald serves as on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which covers federal district courts in parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Michigan.
Many of the speakers noted that the U.S. has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, which affects minorities and low-income individuals disproportionately. The U.S. also has one of the highest recidivism rates, pointing to failures in the current penal system to successfully rehabilitate offenders, especially those with drug convictions.
“We should not use our prisons as a place for drug treatment,” said former federal judge Charles Renfrew.
Movement in the states
Several speakers noted that a large number of states have moved forward with their own efforts at reforming, changes that have led to the closure of some state prisons and the creation of drug courts.
“I think one of the most exciting things we’ve seen in the past few years is that more and more prosecutors, law enforcement officers, sheriffs and attorneys general have been actively engaged in sentencing reform,” said Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Georgia’s Republican Attorney General Sam Olens noted that his state has made significant improvements to the criminal justice system in the last five years, including changes that encourage real transformation of the individual.
“Efforts to treat people for addiction and programs that assist the successful re-entry of inmates is essential,” Olens said. “Having the ACLU, the Tea Party, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the faith and non-profit communities’ involvement has proven critically important to successfully changing the law.”
Maryland’s Democratic Attorney General Brian Frosh highlighted the fact that Maryland has also been working on its own improvements to the criminal justice system.
“Three years ago, Maryland kicked off a series of reforms that has moved us in the right direction and has taken a huge load off the system,” Attorney General Brian Frosh said. “But we know we need to make more progress. We are working with policy makers and stakeholders on more changes, such as reducing penalties for nonviolent offenders and getting those with drug problems immediately into treatment. We are looking at evidence-based solutions, which often enjoy bipartisan support.”
The director of the Ohio Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told of the positive changes he has seen under the leadership of Republican Governor John Kasich.
“In Ohio we saw a ten percent reduction in the population coming to our system because we’ve invested in community corrections over the past five years,” said Gary Mohr. But he added more remains to be done. “A six month sentence is a life sentence to many. If you don’t believe me, just ask anyone who is looking for a job after they’ve spent time in the prison system.”
Changes are also underway on the west coast.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, a Democrat, said that a few years ago she was asked to oversee a new program designed to keep women out of prison by sending them to residential treatment. It was so successful that the next year she helped establish a court for military veterans, which achieved a similar success rate.
While she’s excited about the efforts undertaken in LA, she continues to be bothered by one case. She told the story of a young woman she called Miriam who had come to LA for graduate school at the age of 28, but was arrested for carjacking after going off her medication.
“I am troubled by the fact that this young woman will forever be a felon, and may have trouble finding work because of it. She is mentally ill,” said Lacey. “That just strikes me as incredibly unjust.”
Lacey said Miriam’s story, “Gives us a place to begin discussing alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illness.”
The director of the Aleph Institute said the Institute is working with the Coalition for Public Safety to provide answers to questions that were raised at the summit.
“Our hope is that the toolkit we will provide will prove to be an additional catalyst for further discussion and changes to laws as well as regulations impacting prisoners and their families,” Rabbi Lipskar said. That information will be added to the www.ASKSSummit.com website in the coming weeks.