New York Criminal Justice Reform Conference

Recap of the New York Criminal Justice Conference

More than 225 people attended a one-day conference  on criminal justice reform for New Yorkers on September 15, 2019, organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), UJA-Federation of New York, and the JCRC of New York, and cosponsored by 35 local Jewish organizations. The Conference brought attention to the various issues in criminal justice reform and urged the Jewish community to reengage in this modern day civil rights crisis. We heard wonderful speakers discuss topics such as mass incarceration, bail reform, interfaith work and strategies, the importance of our role in assisting people as they reenter society, and criminal justice reform specifically in New York.

Representatives from a wide range of fields and experiences within the criminal justice system including government officials, advocates, people who were formally incarcerated, experts, and more and learned ways in which we can get involved as a community. Jewish teachings are based upon knowledge, compassion, and justice and it is important that we use these and partner with other faith and civil rights groups. The conference was a powerful call to action to address the crisis that affects us all and brought us together to unite for the cause.

We were able to begin building a roadmap for action that we hope to move forward on with a coalition made up of other faith and civil rights groups. The Conference has been made possible by funding from UJA Federation of New York and was supported by The Margaret and Daniel Loeb Foundation and the Leon Toby Cooperman Family Foundation. Thank you to everyone that attended and participated.

PROGRAM HIGHLIGHTS

Keynote: Representative Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY-8)

As the author of the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill that Congress passed and the President signed into law last year, Representative Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY-8) discussed how he worked with the White House and advocates and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to build support and ultimately win passage of the first major criminal justice reform bill in years. He also spoke about the legacy of slavery within the criminal justice and the need for more reform in the future.

Keynote: Topeka K. Sam (The Ladies of Hope Ministries)

While in Federal Prison, Topeka K. Sam witnessed firsthand the epidemic and disparity of incarceration on women, more specifically women of color. She felt the urgency to bring the faces and voices of women in prison to the public in order to bring awareness to women’s incarceration and post-incarceration issues in order to change the criminal legal system. Motivated by her experiences, Topeka created the Ladies of Hope Ministries, an organization that helps disenfranchised and marginalized women transition back into society through education, entrepreneurship, spiritual empowerment, and advocacy. In her address at the New York conference, she spoke powerfully about her own story and struggles that she and all the women she met along the way endure.

Plenary Panels

Plenary: Making the Case for Criminal Justice Reform in the Jewish Community

Philanthropists Jason Flom and Daniel Loeb shared their stories, focusing on how they came to criminal justice reform and how Jewish values and teaching provide the foundation for their work.

Moderator: Topeka K. Sam (Ladies of Hope Ministries) Speakers: Jason Flom (Lava Records) and Daniel S. Loeb (Third Point)

This session was off-the-record.

Plenary: Mass Incarceration: Modern Day Civil Rights Challenge

This panel educated the audience about mass incarceration in the United States.

Introduction: Rabbi Nicole Auerbach (Central Synagogue) Moderator: Jim Johnson (Brennan Center for Justice) Speakers: Vidal Guzman (JustLeadershipUSA), Insha Rahman (Vera Institute), and Michael Waldman (Brennan Venter for Justice)

Click here to watch.

Plenary: The Faith Role in Ending Mass Incarceration

This panel explored the importance of faith communities in all aspects of mass incarceration, from arrest to reentry, and raised awareness among participants about successful programming run by faith groups that can be modeled.

Moderator: Reverend John Vaughn (Auburn Seminary) Speakers: Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson (T’ruah) and Crystal Walthall (Faith in Action)

Click here to watch.

Plenary: Criminal Justice Reform in New York: Challenges and Opportunities

Moderated by NY1 anchor Cheryl Wills, this panel provide attendees with perspectives from government officials and advocates on the state of criminal justice in New York, how best to address the varying issues at play, and where the Jewish community can be most helpful.

Moderator: Cheryl Wills (NY1) Speakers: Khalil Cumberbatch (New Yorkers United for Justice), Erin L. George (Citizen Action of NY and FREE New York Campaign), Dana Kaplan (New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Services), and Joseph Popcun (New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services)

Click here to watch.

Breakout Sessions

Criminal Justice Reform and Civil Rights: A State of (Dis)Union

The U.S. has the world’s highest incarceration rate; 2.3 million Americans are in prison today. Fueled by the “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” mandatory sentencing policies, mass incarceration has a clear racial impact: 70 percent of people in US prisons are non-white. There is significant momentum for reform across the political spectrum but there is much more to reform that is needed. This workshop provided a user-friendly overview of the breadth, depth, and key elements of the criminal justice system.

Moderator: Sheryl Parker (JCC Manhattan) Speakers: Ruth Messinger (AJWS Global Ambassador) and Insha Rahman (Vera Institute)

Ending Mass Incarceration: Sentencing and Bail Reform

Justice in America is too often delayed or denied. Courts dockets are overloaded, the public defender system is underfunded, and racial disparities permeate the system. The inadequacy of the current system results too often in justice delayed and denied, as when the outcomes of criminal justice proceeding hinge arbitrarily on a defendant’s finances. In this session, participants learned more about sentencing and prison reform efforts in New York and ways that the Jewish community can join in the campaign.

Moderator: Hanna Dershowitz (Aleph Institute) Speakers: Vidal Guzman (JustLeadershipUSA), Justine Olderman (Bronx Defenders), Jason Starr (Civil Rights Lawyer and Policy Activist)

Click here to watch.

Conditions in Confinement: Challenges and Opportunities

The incarceration system has all but abandoned rehabilitation in favor of retribution. Prison conditions can impose hardships and dire consequences more egregious than those imposed by our laws. Prisons have also become de facto mental health facilities. Many Jewish practitioners work in the prison system and on reform efforts focusing on chaplaincy, mental health, and support. Participants learned from these practitioners about how to bring ethics and values to our work when we show up to support individuals and their families during incarceration.

Moderator: Rabbi Hilly Haber (Central Synagogue) Speakers: Professor Kimora (CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice), Johnny Perez (National Religious Campaign Against Torture), and Dyjuan Tatro (Bard Prison Initiative)

Click here to watch.

Supporting the Formerly Incarcerated: Reintegration

Formerly incarcerated individuals must navigate a complex set of barriers that make resuming any semblance of normal life nearly impossible. Nearly half end up back in prison. The lack of adequate rehabilitation programming, medical and behavioral health services, substance abuse treatment, educational opportunities, and family contact make reentering society a real challenge. In this session, attendees learned more about ongoing efforts to support formerly incarcerated individuals and how the Jewish community can help those impacted by the system.

Moderator: Rabbi Joseph Potasnik (New York Board of Rabbis) Speakers: Elizabeth Gaynes (Osborne Association), Evie Litwok (Witness to Mass Incarceration), and Andre Ward (Fortune Society)

Click here to watch.

The Police and the Community: Building Better Bridges

Animosity between law enforcement and communities of color has reached crisis levels. Police shootings have justifiably captured public attention and reignited a national conversation about how we police society. Alternatively, Jewish communities often have strong and positive relationships with law enforcement based on increasing antisemitic acts and violence towards Jews and Jewish institutions. Law enforcement experts and activists explained reform efforts under consideration  and ways the Jewish community, particularly Jews of Color, can play a bridging role in community policing and relationships.

Moderator: Rabbi Bob Kaplan (JCRC NY) Speakers: Chris Burbank (Center for Policing Equity), Assistant Chief Stephen Hughes (NYPD), and Yehudah Webster (Jews for Racial and Economic Justice)

Roadmapping

In the last session of the day, participants rolled up their sleeves, broke into groups, and starting planning out next steps and future actions. Stay tuned for more details!