Reforming criminal justice with Bruce Turnbull

Bruce Turnbull. Photo by Susan Turnbull.

Bruce Turnbull is a voice for Jewish values rooted in social justice. He retired from four decades of practicing law and now applies his legal skills as an advocate for criminal justice reform and for dispelling myths and misinformation about critical race theory in schools.

He is passionate about using research, advocacy and organizing to dismantle mass incarceration. “Our criminal justice system disproportionally targets and impacts people of color,” Turnbull, 70, said. “Black people are five times as likely as whites to be incarcerated. Our punitive system ensnares and disenfranchises many individuals for their entire lives.”

The biggest change that is needed immediately, Turnbull said, “is to alter the narrative to one where society is seeking rehabilitation and restoration [of the incarcerated], not vengeance and punishment.”

A Bethesda resident, Turnbull is involved in a long list of community volunteer activities: He serves on the board of Jews United for Justice Campaign Fund and on JUFJ’s Montgomery County Leadership Council. He also co-chairs the Criminal Justice Reform Initiative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which engages Jewish communities around the country in reforming the criminal justice system.

Turnbull also represents the JCPA on the Justice Task Force of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national organizations. In addition, he serves on the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, which lobbies Congress on criminal justice and police reform issues.

Turnbull served on the interfaith coalition that lobbied hard on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which Congress has failed to pass. “Although that has not so far been successful, the JCPA has been able to take the issues to the Jewish Community Relations Councils and their members in 125 cities,” he said.

On addressing criminal justice reform, he said, “It’s important to treat the underlying issues in society that breed crime, such as poverty, housing insecurity, food insecurity and lack of employment and career opportunities.”

Marijuana legalization is a key component of broader criminal justice reform, he said. “And we must treat drug addiction as a health issue, not a criminal issue.”

Through JCPA, he is furthering discussions on the controversy surrounding critical race theory, which Turnbull describes as, “a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism. It started as a legal inquiry in the late 1970s into what was preventing the civil rights laws of the 1960s from succeeding in transforming America.”

Turnbull, who majored in American history at Cornell University, added, “People have come to use that phrase to mean a number of things and there has been state legislation passed that says schools shall not teach things that are controversial or make people uncomfortable because of their race. In too many instances, that translates into not teaching the real history of America. We cannot become a better, more just society without understanding true history.”

Turnbull, who belongs to Temple Micah in the District, said he is proud of helping to create a statement of Jewish values that supports criminal justice reform, which he called the new frontier of the civil rights movement.

The statement incorporates teshuvah — return to the path of righteousness; b’tzelem elohim — all people are made in the divine image; tzedek tzedek tirdof — justice, justice, you shall pursue; and whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world, among other traditional Jewish concepts.

Turnbull converted to Judaism in 1976. His wife, Susan Turnbull, is also a Jewish organization advocate and a leader of the Democratic Party. She was the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in Maryland in 2018. “Judaism has become central to our marriage and family and has provided me with a spiritual home in the Jewish community.”

He said the strongest influences in his life were his parents. Turnbull’s mother was a social worker in the Johnson administration’s war on poverty. His father taught philosophy at University of Iowa and served on the governor’s commission that wrote the state civil rights laws in the early 1960s. “They taught me the importance of taking moral stands and being engaged in community efforts for justice.”

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