Jews Join Black Initiative to Include Racial Justice Provision in Crime Bill

Blacks and Jews have joined forces in an attempt to ensure Congress passes a crime bill that guarantees defendants the right to appeal death sentences if racial bias is suspected.

The Racial Justice Act, included in the House of Representatives version of the crime bill, allows a defendant to challenge a death sentence based on his or her belief that the sentence was imposed as a result of the race of the victim or defendant.

Both the House and Senate passed crime bills earlier this year that extend the death penalty to an additional 50 federal crimes. As members of Congress meet to hammer out the differences between the two versions, the House-passed Racial Justice Act has become a primary stumbling block.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have pledged to scuttle the crime bill if the final version comes before the House without racial justice provisions.

Most Jewish organizations have consistently opposed the death penalty over the years. But some groups, believing that national political opinion supports some form of the death penalty, have chosen to back the Racial Justice Act to ensure that racism does not factor into executions.

“It’s a matter of simple justice,” said Mark Pelavin, Washington representative of the American Jewish Congress. “If you’re going to have a death penalty you have to make sure there is no room for racism.”

In a letter to President Clinton, the American Jewish Congress called on the president to “end your troubling silence” and to ensure that “racism must not be allowed to play a role in meting out justice in America.”

‘PATTERN OF EVIDENCE’ IN RACIAL DISPARITIES

AJCongress and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism have joined with U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a Jewish member of Congress, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union to actively push to include racial justice provisions in the final congressional bill.

In a 1990 study, the General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm, found a “pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing and imposition of the death penalty.”

The study found that a person accused of killing a white victim was over four times as likely to be sentenced to death as a person convicted of killing a black person.

The effort on behalf of the crime bill has given blacks and Jews an issue to rally around together, according to those involved in this issue.

“Clearly this has been a year where we’ve seen a lot of tensions,” Pelavin said, referring specifically to a series of conflicts and anti-Semitic statements made by Nation of Islam leaders this year.

“Despite these high-profile tensions, there remains a very important and very solid day-to-day working relationship between the communities,” he said.

Though her group has chosen not to take an active stance in the crime-bill debate, Sammie Moshenberg, director of the Washington office of the National Council of Jewish Women, expressed the views of many Jews on the death penalty when she said, “If you are going to mete out the most Draconian and horrible, irreversible penalty to a criminal, any and every precaution should be taken to ensure that bias does not factor into the decision.”

Other Jewish groups, including some Orthodox organizations, have chosen not to take a position in this debate because of their unequivocal opposition to the death penalty.

Betty Ehrenberg, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said her organization “opposes the death penalty in all cases for all races.”

NEXT STORY