Criminal justice reform, 2016 election are focus of NCJW conference

NCJW members marched at to Capitol Hill Tuesday to protest Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) decision not to consider any of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees.  Photo by Ronald Sachs
NCJW members marched at to Capitol Hill Tuesday to protest Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) decision not to consider any of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees.
Photo by Ronald Sachs

Donald Trump, the Supreme Court and other actors in the conversation surrounding the 2016 election were the talk of the National Council of Jewish Women’s Washington Institute, held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel.

More than 400 women from across the country turned out for the three-day public policy conference. On Sunday, NCJW President Debbie Hoffman opened the proceedings by making a plea to Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to reverse his position and agree to consider a Supreme Court nominee put forward by President Barack Obama.

“We are demanding to the Senate, ‘do your job,’” she said.

On Tuesday, NCJW members marched silently on Capitol Hill holding copies of the Constitution as an act of protest against the Senate’s inaction.

At a panel discussion about the presidential election, the focus immediately turned to Trump’s GOP campaign for president.

“This is utterly different than anything we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes,” said NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. “This is one candidate who says things like, ‘I wish I could punch that guy in the face.’”

She said that Trump’s campaign, which has ignored social and political norms, may be an indication of the Republican Party going through a dissolution or transformation.

Reporter Janell Ross of The Washington Post compared Trump’s campaign to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, when many Republicans crossed party lines and voted for incumbent President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat.

“I would not be surprised if something similar happened,” she said.

Asked if they thought Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was being evaluated differently from male candidates because of her gender, Ross said no. There was more sexism being directed at her in her 2008 campaign, she said. But, Ross said, women in politics will always be looked at differently from men.

“I definitely think there’s also a learning curve for male candidates who are accustomed to running against only men,” she said.

Liasson noted that gender is playing a lesser role in Clinton’s current campaign than it did in 2008. She said that the media has scrutinized her campaign more because of her role as secretary of state and because she is considered the establishment candidate for the Democratic Party.

“In this case there’s a huge double standard, but not because of her gender,” Liasson said, adding that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has received considerably less scrutiny despite three decades in elected office.

In a session that focused on criminal justice reform, Sakira Cook, an attorney with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, discussed pending legislation in Congress. One, the End Racial Profiling Act, would outlaw policies and practices by law enforcement agencies deemed discriminatory. African-Americans and Latinos make up half of the incarcerated population in the United States, Cook said.

She also made a push for the “ban the box” movement, which is seeking to eliminate the box on a job or college application that asks whether the applicant has been accused of a crime. She said this is a particularly difficult issue for people who have been falsely accused and later the charges against them were dropped.

“The fact that you check that box generally affects whether you get called back for an interview,” she said.

In response to a question about legal representation for minorities, Cook said it is particularly difficult for minorities because they generally rely on government-appointed attorneys and often end up entering into negotiated pleas.

“Mainly, the problem is that public defenders and their offices are strapped,” she said, explaining “that impacts the ability for someone — especially people of color who tend have lower incomes — to have effective assistance of counsel.”

The session also featured comments from Aliza Wasserman, a leader of the Washington chapter of the national network Showing Up for Racial Justice. Wasserman said the support of whites will be key in helping to improve the lives of minorities.

“We’re not doing this for someone else, we’re doing this because our liberation is all tied together,” she said.

On Monday, Susie Gelman received the Woman Who Dared Award for “her groundbreaking advocacy to raise awareness about civil society issues in Israel,” according to NCJW. (Gelman is a member of the Mid-Atlantic Media ownership group that publishes Washington Jewish Week).

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