Chabad Crime and Consequence course tackles hot topic of justice reform

Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin (left) consults with guest speakers Wendy A. Petersen and Terrance Cheung before Chabad Tucson’s March 12 class on crime prevention at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. (Photo: Korene Charnofsky Cohen)

A staggering 83 percent of more than 400,000 prisoners released in 2005 across 30 states were arrested at least once in the nine years following their release, according to a U. S. Department of Justice study released in 2018. Today many groups are talking about and researching justice reform. Some of the suggested changes are in line with the spirit of Torah.

A recent six-session Chabad course, “Crime and Consequence,” explored Jewish thought and principles on crime, punishment, and prevention. The course, based on a book by the same title published in 2018 by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, was held at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, Feb. 5 to March 12. The goal was to study what is current in American law, compare this with Jewish principles, and suggest practical guidelines to achieve a more just, true, and peaceful system of justice.

Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin, 36, of Chabad Tucson, has been visiting prison inmates since he was 14. This gives him a unique perspective for teaching “Crime and Consequence.”

“Since childhood I have been encouraged by the teachings of Rabbi Schneerson to engage others, and to reach out to people who may not ever go to a synagogue,” Ceitlin says, referring to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), known as the “Lubavitcher Rebbe” or the “Rebbe.”

Ceitlin grew up in Montreal, Canada, and went with his grandmother to take treats to residents of senior living communities, or sometimes to take Shabbat candles to pregnant mothers in the hospital. He was taught to relate to people who were different in some way, and this attitude, he says, led to visiting prisoners, as well as reaching out to the families of victims.

“The Rebbe reminds us of the humanity of prisoners, to see their value, and to help them start on a road to rehabilitation,” Ceitlin explains. “Prisoners often are forgotten because they are out of sight and out of mind. The walls of the prison represent separating good from evil, but we can do some good by going inside those walls.”

At age 14, Ceitlin’s first visit to a prison in the company of two rabbis seemed surreal. The stories he had heard about criminals as a child sounded harsher than the reality he saw at the prison. Yet, the gates, walls, and towers reminded him of stories about Jews in Russia and what happened during the Holocaust.

“Back then I was more oblivious to what the inmates had done to go to prison,” he says. “I remember seeing prisoners as hapless, unfortunate and non-threatening people.

“Today, when I take a more mature look, I see the prisoners are incarcerated for a reason, but I see this as tragic rather than unfortunate. I consider that there were circumstances that led to these people being in prison. I have compassion, but also recognize that there are reasons that we have laws.”

Ceitlin continues to visit people at the federal penitentiary in Tucson, as do other Chabad rabbis. On regular visits the rabbis share thoughts on the weekly Torah readings, take prayer books, tefillin, kippot, and occasionally, printed notes for a class. They also visit on holidays including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Purim. The rabbis often receive letters from prisoners thanking them for their visits.

“I find that just my presence is encouraging to these prisoners, and they appreciate that I am making this commitment,” says Ceitlin. “Sometimes reminding someone of their Judaism and their humanity can help someone survive in prison.”

“An Ounce of Prevention,” addressing crime before it happens, was the topic of the March 12 class. “We might have begun with this class on prevention, but instead we are ending with this topic. Most of the time people are dealing with crime after the fact,” Ceitlin said, pointing out that people call out for help for many reasons — unemployment, poverty, family conflicts, neighborhood gangs, or even boredom — and we need to find ways to help before unfortunate situations lead to crime.

Other course topics included the point of prisons, the death penalty, standards of evidence in the Talmud, making amends, and reacceptance and the criminal background check.

The March 12 session included a video from 1969 when the Rebbe met with the president of the New York City council. His message was that we should see everyone as humans with great potential, and live without infringing on the rights of others.

Although the Torah acknowledges the need for laws, and details punishments for various crimes, it rarely prescribes incarceration as a means of retribution. Prison is viewed as dehumanizing, and Jewish laws and ethics focus more on rehabilitation. American prisons are correctional facilities, but Ceitlin said they don’t “correct” prisoners, most often due to low budgets and inadequate staff.

Jewish thought, as reflected in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers), suggests that we contemplate three things to help prevent committing a transgression — “Know what is above you [referring to G-d], a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds are written in a book.”

Ceitlin interprets this as an attitude that can help with crime prevention, even if you don’t believe in G-d. “Being aware that someone [G-d or simply another person] is watching you, being aware that someone cares about you and cares about your actions, can be enough to discourage bad actions,” he said. Beginning from childhood, if people understand that what they do affects others, this teaches a sense of ethics and values.

Wendy A. Petersen, assistant Pima County administrator for justice and law enforcement, and Terrance Cheung, Pima County director of justice reform initiatives, were guest speakers for the class.

“We want to make the justice system more fair,” said Cheung. “We are looking for alternatives to jail for low risk criminals” [those convicted of shoplifting, minor drug charges or other non-violent crimes]. He suggests more community services to keep people out of jail or prevent them from returning to jail after release. Sometimes, he added, people who are homeless or mentally ill will miss their day in court, and might end up serving more
jail time.

“We want to provide better care for this population of people who cannot always take care of themselves; we want to put them into a better situation,” Cheung said.

Pima County started a project in July 2018 that provides housing for 150 people as well as mental health care, drug rehabilitation programs, and help finding employment. To date, the project has helped more than 300 people, and the county is evaluating its cost effectiveness.

Petersen gave an example of repeat offenders in Pima County, citing one man who was jailed 41 times in 24 months. He would get out of jail and go to a Circle K and steal a hot dog and coffee. A Circle K employee would call the sheriff’s department, and the man would end up back in jail.

“There is a high cost for housing a prisoner in county jail — $300 for initial fees, then $100 a day,” Petersen told the class. “We could practically buy him a condo for the cost of keeping him in jail.”

Pima County is part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a program of the John D. and Catherine T.
MacArthur Foundation that is dedicated to reducing jail populations and finding ways to make communities “healthier, fairer, and safer,” according to the Safety and Justice Challenge website. Pima County has received $3.3 million from the foundation.

The 50 students taking the Chabad class represented many professions, including private investigation, medical, mental health, and “just people who care,” said Ceitlin. He asked the class what prevention policies would they support.

Addressing the causes of crime is a start, but students agreed that just as a disease can have many causes, it is difficult to pinpoint any one cause for crime. Some felt that crime prevention could start by dealing with situations where people feel hopeless due to an atmosphere of hate and distrust. Others suggestions included education programs in schools, having police officers develop positive relationships with school children, having beat officers get to know neighborhood residents, providing more food assistance programs, help getting employment, more effective treatment for the mentally ill, longer school hours to protect children whose parents work later, and mentorship programs for children to learn about life in prison and the consequences of committing a crime.

Student Seth Basker, was inspired by the class to help former inmates make successful transitions from prison back into the community. He owns Basker Consulting Group, and coaches people making career transitions through evaluation and training. He is working with Aleph Institute, founded in 1981 under Schneerson, to develop a program for inmates. The institute provides a range of programs for prisoners and their families.

This was Basker’s eighth Jewish Learning Institute class. “The rich content often challenges my preconceived notion of what I believed the truth to be,” he said. “Sometimes the content creates a sense of awe that motivates me into action.”