Tonight is Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Passover. On Passover we are reminded again and again about the slavery we suffered in Egypt. We are commended to remember it. We are commanded to feel as if we personally had been freed from Egypt. We are surrounded by symbols of bitterness, tears, and sweat so that we can remember the slavery in Egypt.
Throughout the Torah we are commanded, and slavery in Egypt is attached to the reasoning behind the command. The first of the Ten Utterances (misleadingly known as the Ten Commandments), says, “I am Adonai Your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod. 20:2). We are commanded to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread during the month of Aviv, “because in [that month] you came out of [slavery in] Egypt…” (Exod. 23:15). God regularly self-identifies as, “Adonai Your God who brought you out of Egypt.” And there are countless times we are reminded not to oppress the widow, the orphan, or the stranger, for we were strangers in the Land of Egypt.
We can read from all of these reminders of our slavery in Egypt that we should have empathy for those who are enslaved, who are strangers, who are captives. Even those who are captive because of their own mistakes—those who are imprisoned justly by the courts, who should still be treated with justice while they are serving their time.
Some of you are aware that I met with Governor Jerry Brown this week.
On Wednesday afternoon, 25 California rabbis from across the denominations met in Hollywood with he governor, so he could explain his initiative to help reduce prison overcrowding, save money for California taxpayers, and prevent the revolving door so many prisoners are subject to. It is called The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016, and I encourage you to look it up on line and get informed about it when you get home. governor Brown needs one million signatures by mid-May to get this Act on the ballot in June, and he has approached faith leaders across the state to help him with this important initiative.
What does the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act do? (Boldface lines are directly from Governor Brown's web site or from comments he made at our meeting.)
• Authorizes parole consideration for people with non-violent convictions who complete the full sentence for their primary offense. This means that offenders are eligible for parole after one sentence is served, instead of after a string of consecutive sentences. With the parole board in place to take each person into consideration, it takes away the sweeping, long-term sentences that currently exist in our state.
• Incentivizes people in prison to complete rehabilitation and education programs. The governor reminded us that in prison there are many choices. A prisoner could join a gang, get involved with drugs, learn violent and abusive behaviors, become a victim of said behaviors, or rise above and get educated, get physically and mentally fit, go to counseling or rehab. If they choose the right path and do what Governor Brown calls “Good Time,” they might be rewarded with early parole.
• Requires the Secretary of Corrections to certify that the regulations implementing these policies protect and enhance public safety. This means correctional officers would get extra training to know how to handle those making good choices but making mistakes, and helping them learn to positively reinforce good behaviors, and use the carrot more than the stick. We were told the story of a prisoner who was working hard to get his GED. He struggled with behavioral problems and slipped up from time to time, and a prison guard was punishing him by taking his books away. Guards would be trained to recognize that punishments like this end up punishing everyone, not just the prisoner. Helping the staff make better choices is just as important as encouraging good time for the inmates.
• Requires judges rather than prosecutors to decide whether a youth as young as 14-years-old should be tried as an adult. This would take a large population of very vulnerable prisoners out of prison and put them in juvenile detention centers. It also mandates a judge carefully review all of the circumstances of a youth's crime and life before making a decision on whether that young person should be charged as an adult.
• Saves taxpayer dollars by reducing wasteful spending within our correctional system. Lowering the prison population lowers the cost of taking care of its inmates. In 2012, the US Supreme Court mandated that California reduce its prison population to 137% of capacity, which at the time was 200%. In the last three years, Governor Brown’s policies have help reduce prison spending by just over $1 billion, but there is still a long way to go.
• Keeps the most dangerous offenders locked up. Those who do not make good choices, including violent offenders, will stay in prison. This is important to note, because the bill does not suggest any sort of blanket treatment of prisoners, but to treat each person individually, as the person they are.
On Passover this year we will begin our “Let My People Go Initiative.” Starting next Friday, there will be petitions available for us to sign to get the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act on the ballot this June. There will be petitions available at CBT’s Second Seder next Saturday evening, and they will be here in the office throughout the week of Passover. Our goal is to get 100 signatures from CBT by May 20, and if we run out of petitions, we will order another 100.
May we work toward making positive change in our prison system in California, because we were prisoners in the land of Egypt.