Last week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, teaches tzedek, tzedek, terdof — justice, justice, you shall pursue. But how can we pursue justice, when some systems are inherently unjust?
In this case, I am referring to the criminal justice system in the United States.
Over the past few months, I had the pleasure to get to know Michelle as we drove together to Jefferson City to advocate for criminal justice reform measures. Michelle is a mother, a sister, a full-time employee, and a passionate volunteer. More recently, she has come to be a friend. She is also a person directly impacted by the mass incarceration system that plagues our country, having been formerly locked up in a Missouri women’s prison.
I do not know why she was imprisoned; I never asked. All I know is that Michelle served her time and was now working to improve the lives of people in and released from prison.
Perhaps not surprising in all of this is that Michelle is low-income and black.
Last week, Michelle was ordered to return to prison. She was sentenced to 10 months.
In many ways, Michelle had been one of the lucky ones because after being released from prison, she found a job. She had safe and affordable housing and was working to support herself, her son, and care for her brother.
At one point, Michelle had been receiving a government benefit to assist her while experiencing a disability. She returned to work, but then misplaced and forgot to file required paperwork to notify the government. This resulted in her receiving several months of payments from the federal government to which she was no longer entitled, in the amount of about $4,000.
This was an error, there is no debating that. But what happened next is a far worse violation.
Michelle was never given a chance. She worked out a payment plan with the Social Security Administration, but her first payment was refused — the agency was told not to take her money. Instead, a federal prosecutor charged her with intentionally defrauding the government based on her prior federal conviction.
Michelle could not afford an attorney. Her public defender did what she could, even finding phone records between Michelle and the Social Security Administration, showing that she was trying to work out a solution.
So instead of repaying about $4,000, Michelle is going to prison for almost a year. Her son needs to find another place to live. The brother she tends to will be without a caretaker. Her employer will have to identify and train a replacement. And in a year from now, she will likely be back on government subsidies as she once again works to rebuild her life and climbs the uphill battle of finding a place to live and a job—difficult for any person and nearly impossible for one who is formerly incarcerated.
Between the cost of prosecution and the incarceration, the federal government will pay more than $100,000, over a $4,000 overpayment that she mistakenly received and was willing to pay back.
Michelle was doing everything right, everything that we demand of people who have entered the criminal justice system. Indeed, along the way, she made a mistake—a mistake that any one of us could have made, and most of us would have rectified by paying a fine.
Horrifically, Michelle’s story is not unique. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, America incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. The United States has five percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners. Furthermore, while only 12 percent of the U.S. population identifies as black, 60 percent of our prison population are people of color. And like Michelle, once a person enters the prison industrial complex, it is nearly impossible to get out.
I was honored to stand alongside Michelle this past year in our shared mission of advocating for the necessary reforms to break the ensnaring web of mass incarceration.
I will continue to pursue justice as I stand in partnership with Michelle and so many others with similar stories and to demand change. And I invite you to join me. Our tradition obligates us to pursue justice and there is little about the U.S. criminal justice system that is just if you are poor and black in America.
Cheryl Adelstein is deputy director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.