Monday, December 17, 2018
A Hasidic crusade for federal prison reform could open the door for a group of unintended beneficiaries — 2,600 prisoners serving lengthy sentences for selling crack cocaine.
Although Jewish people represent less than 1% of the 183,000 federal prisoner population, Hasidic leaders in New York are pushing for changes that would nix some mandatory sentencing recommendations and give judges more discretion.
The "First Step Act," a criminal justice measure with bipartisan support, would allow convicted drug peddlers to petition judges for their immediate release, though the Hasidic effort is more likely aimed at helping prisoners like Mordechai Samet, who in 2003, was sentenced to 27 years in prison for running what prosecutors called a "full-service fraud factory."
Prosecutors said Samet stole at least $5.5 million through multiple scams, including bogus business loans and fake lotteries.
But local Hasidic prison reform backers insist the latest lobbying effort has nothing to do with the Samet case, noting he would not be eligible for release under the legislation.
"The Hasidic community has long been active in issues surrounding sentences and prison reform as a consequence of deeply held foundational beliefs in everybody deserving a second chance," said Michael Tobman a political consultant active with Hasidic communities.
Satmar and other Hasidic sects have already raised $2 million to fund their lobbying efforts.
The legislation has the support of President Trump and passed the House of Representatives in May.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has blocked the bill, is expected to finally allow it to come for a vote in the next few days.
"This is the final showdown," a website pressing members of the Orthodox community to donate to the cause says. "This is where the journey begins or ends. This is when you can change the future of hundreds of inmates in our community."
Rabbi Moshe Margaretten, a member of the Skverer Hasidic sect, is leading the lobbying push.
"Hopefully we will see soon…fathers and mothers and their children are being united again," Margaretten says in a YouTube video urging people to donate to the cause.
He was inspired to push for change after seeing the suffering experienced by the family of a close friend.
In 2011, with the help of community funds, Margaretten hired Washington lobbyist Greg Mitchel and former Utah U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman.
Last December, Trump commuted the 27 year prison sentence of an influential kosher slaughterhouse operator. Sholom Rubashkin, a member of the Lubavitch Hasidic sect, turned into a cause celebre after his sentence in 2009.
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