(Courtesy of Anshei Lubavitch of Fair Lawn) With criminal justice reform center-stage in the United States, the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI)—the world’s largest adult Jewish education network—is launching a course that explores the Jewish approach to the challenging questions of crime, punishment and justice. “Crime and Consequence” is a six-part series that will be offered beginning on February 10 at Anshei Lubavitch of Fair Lawn, as well as at more than 400 locations worldwide.
The United States of America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. There are 2.3 million Americans in prisons and jails; almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners are in America.
A bipartisan bill, the “First Step Act,” has passed the Senate and is soon expected to become law. Among other provisions, the bill gives prisoners new ways to earn early release, expands compassionate release for terminally ill prisoners and will keep inmates closer to their families. The bill has brought the debate about criminal justice into sharp focus; Americans are discussing the value of tougher or smarter reforms, fairness of mandatory minimum sentencing as opposed to judicial discretion, and whether prison is at all effective in reforming criminals.
“Crime and Consequence” will tackle these questions from a Jewish perspective, addressing topics such as “What’s the purpose of prison: punishment, deterrence or rehabilitation?,” “What’s Judaism’s position on the death penalty?” and “Can criminals ever make amends, and if so, how?” The course draws deeply on ancient Jewish sources, while using contemporary materials to give a modern context to the discussion.
Students of the course will discover that the Jewish approach to justice goes well beyond the reforms in the First Step Act, providing alternative sentences for non-dangerous criminals that are tailored to fit the crime, and advocating for rehabilitation programs that continue well after punishment has been served.
“The debate over the First Step Act shows that Judaism’s timeless truths and insights about human nature, society and wrongdoing are as relevant today as ever before,” said Rabbi Avrohom Bergstein of Anshei Lubavitch of Fair Lawn. “JLI’s ‘Crime and Consequence’ course brings these important Jewish perspectives home to our own community.”
The program has won early endorsements from distinguished law professors and criminal justice campaigners.
Dr. John H. Laub, University Professor, department of criminology and criminal justice, University of Maryland, welcomed the course. “Questions about the causes of crime and the appropriate governmental response have challenged and bedeviled social thinkers for centuries. Indeed, such big questions have no easy answers. In light of the current bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, especially at the state and local level, the course is timely and important. I am glad to see the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute take on this topic in a thoughtful and productive manner,” he said.
“We are now at a moment of changing attitudes among policymakers and the general public regarding the world-record prison population in the United States. With increasing calls for a change in our approach to crime and punishment, the JLI course is quite timely in helping to frame these issues for a broad audience,” noted Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project.
The course is also accredited for Continuing Legal Education in most states.
Two of JLI’s other adult education courses—“How Happiness Thinks” and “Living With Integrity”—are on a list of just 66 programs recommended to prison wardens nationwide as recidivism-reducing by the Federal Bureau of Prisons as part of the new prison reforms.