Bay Area rabbis join in interfaith push for prison reform

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When it comes to mass incarceration and its cost to society, Rabbi Jason Rodich of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El can quote statistics. To wit: Nearly eight times as much is spent per capita on prisoners as on public school students.

He can also quote the Torah.

“In Leviticus, redemption only happens when a human being frees another human being,” he said. “How do we create a system of justice that lives up to our highest vision of what we can be as a state? How can we bring to bear our Jewish values on this conversation?”


Rabbi Jason Rodich speaking in Sacramento on Sept. 12

Rodich brought that perspective to a Sept. 12 summit in Sacramento with 150 interfaith clergy, lay leaders, prison reform activists and Gov. Jerry Brown.


Co-sponsored by the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and the California social justice nonprofit PICO, the Sentencing Reform Summit brought together rabbis, Protestant ministers, Catholic priests and Muslim imams from across the state to voice support for Proposition 57 on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Dubbed the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act, Proposition 57 would make thousands of inmates convicted of non-violent felonies eligible for parole. They also must have served their basic sentences and pass a security screening. It would also beef up rehabilitation programs and allow judges, not prosecutors, to decide whether to try juveniles as adults.

Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state Democratic Party and several law enforcement and probation officer associations support the proposition. It is opposed by dozens of district attorneys and law enforcement groups.

“We see Prop 57 as part of a larger campaign we want to be involved in around issues of criminal justice reform,” Rodich said in a telephone interview. “We have historically high levels of people in prison. We are treating them like human warehouses, and without getting into the politics, as a rabbi and as Jews we have to say this is not moral. Our tradition calls on us to do better than that.”

Also attending the summit was Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller of San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel. She saw the gathering as more than just an opportunity to voice support for a ballot measure. She saw it as a coming together of people of disparate faiths who share a common goal.

“This proposition is about turning our correctional system into one that’s actually corrective,” she said.

Among the speakers was Brown, an enthusiastic backer of Prop 57 who sees it as a chance to atone for mistakes made during his first stint as governor in the late 1970s.

“It’s a tikkun,” said Rodich, using the Hebrew term for repair. “In his first administration there were laws passed that made pretty heavy-handed inflexible sentencing laws. What that led to was people in prison a really long time.”

Saxe-Taller was impressed by a former inmate, now a prison-reform activist, who told attendees that most people in prison were themselves victims of abuse and other crimes, often as children.

“He said, ‘The minute I committed a crime, the trauma I experienced before that ceased to matter,’ ” Saxe-Taller noted. “Nobody cared as soon as he did something wrong. The system was only treating what he had done, and never cared about what already happened to him.”

She said that the next step is for the clergy and lay leaders to spearhead community organizing around support for Prop 57, now through Election Day.

Rodich believes Jews have a key voice to add to the cause.

“We are part of a tremendous religious voice calling for human dignity,” he said. “Religious voices are important when it comes to social justice, and when religious leaders are unified, we can lead.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.