Forbes.com Walter Pavlo January 16, 2023
It is the 4th anniversary of the First Step Act (FSA), one of the most meaningful criminal justice reforms in decades. While many people and organization rallied to bring about the historic law, the story of the driving forces behind its creation are not as well known.
Rabbi Moshe Margaretten, a soft-spoken community activist, lit the menorah in a White House event in December 2019 at the invitation of then-president Donald Trump. Rabbi Margaretten was extended the invitation in recognition of his diligent work in helping to create the FSA. It was not an easy task but one man’s determination made a difference behind the scenes in Washington.
In his younger years, Rabbi Margaretten spent his free time visiting prisons, giving hope to those where there was little. He saw close-up how incarceration devastated individuals and families and declared it his life’s mission to reform the criminal justice system and shift its focus towards rehabilitation and ultimately, redemption.
The most influential moment for the 41-year-old rabbi occurred when he was visiting a prisoner at the Otisville prison camp in the spring 2009 around Passover. Near him he overheard the conversation between a prisoner, his wife and their three children. The children started asking the father the “Four Questions” related to Passover, a Jewish tradition during the Passover Seder. As the children asked questions, their mother turned to the side so her children would not see and began to cry. Rabbi Margaretten and the prisoner
he was visiting sat quietly and they too wept as did even the corrections officer sitting at the main desk. The visiting room went silent as a heavy sadness blanketed the room. On leaving Otisville, Rabbi Margaretten called Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky who worked at The Aleph Institute, a Jewish prison advocacy group. “I remember telling Rabbi Boyarsky that something had to be done,” Rabbi Margaretten said. It was at that moment that Rabbi Margaretten decided he would dedicate himself to passing meaningful federal prison reform legislation. Years later, after the FSA was ultimately signed into law, the non-profit Tzedek Associationwas formally launched to continue the work of changing laws and policies that help improve the U.S. criminal justice system.
Where Rabbi Margaretten and Tzedek may not be the names one would associate with FSA, their efforts have been recognized by Presidents Biden and Trump, and members of Congress from both parties. Behind the scenes they worked with lobbyists hired by individual donors passionate about criminal justice reform, as well as rabbis from across the country, to encourage influential lawmakers to pass historic criminal justice reform legislation that allowed prisoners the opportunity earn early release from prison through meaningful programming. Once fully implemented, thousands of federal prisoners will earn their freedom or return to society many years before they would have otherwise.
Rabbi Margaretten said that criminal justice reform had historically come from Democratic legislators who usually met opposition from their Republican counterparts. “My thought,” Rabbi Margaretten said, “was to start with Republicans to develop some reform legislation that the Democrats would welcome.” The model Tzedek used was based on a successful state program championed by Texas conservative Republican Governor Rick Perry who lowered prison populations in the state through various reforms.
“The model in Texas allowed non-violent offenders a chance to reenter society sooner through program participation,” Rabbi Margaretten said. It began in 2011 and became the basis for the FSA movement, though the prison reform legislation had other titles in subsequent sessions of Congress.
Rabbi Margaretten told me in an interview that many people believed he was wasting his time going after legislation that would release people from prison. “The common thinking was that the real fight was to change the laws that sent people to prison,” Rabbi Margaretten said, “while I agreed with that, I knew there were thousands of people in prison who could be doing something more productive than sitting there.”
Once he got into Washington, Rabbi Margaretten knew he needed help navigating the political hierarchy in the nation’s capitol and hired a Washington insider to make introductions to legislators and share these ideas. Republican Senators like Chuck Grassley, Mike Lee, John Cornyn and Orrin Hatch joined forces with Democrat Senators such as Dick Durbin and Sheldon Whitehouse to negotiate a bill everyone could agree on. On the House side, Jason Chaffetz and later Doug Collins partnered with Democrats like Hakeem Jeffries and Jerrold Nadler.
After Trump won the election, Jared Kushner made it his business to fight for the legislation. His efforts proved instrumental.
Toward the end, only then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell needed to be convinced to put the bill on the floor for a vote. They had to prove to him that the bill would not divide the Republican caucus, and they found salvation when they got a meeting with Texas Senator Ted Cruz. “He was receptive from the beginning but he wanted to make sure that those who might be released early through legislation posed no danger to society,” Rabbi Margaretten said.
While many wanted a larger group to be eligible, Cruz’s amendment was accepted and soon a Senate initiated bill made its way to the House. In December 2018, FSA become a reality with the Senate’s overwhelming 87-12 approval and the House of Representatives vote on the revisions to bill which passed by an overwhelming 358-36. President Trump signed the bill into law on December 21, 2018, only hours before the government was shut down.
FSA allows eligible federal prisoners to earn credits toward earlier release from prison, up to one year, and an unlimited amount of credits for pre-release custody (halfway house and home-confinement). These credits are earned through prisoner participation in certain programs and productive activities. However, despite President Trump signing FSA into law, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has not fully implemented the program nearly four years after it became law. Rabbi Margaretten said, “We knew that our work was just getting started once FSA became law.”
Once the BOP received the legislation, its initial interpretation was that there would be few prisoners going home early and none would see their prison term reduced. The Federal Register published the proposed rule for FSA and in 2021, lawmakers had weighed in on the BOP’s limited view of FSA. According to a senior executive in the BOP who wished not to be identified, “I can tell you that Tzedek would be in a Senator’s office in the morning and in the Director’s [BOP Director] in the afternoon. Nobody else has pushed something through like this.” When the final FSA rule was publishedearlier this year, the BOP suddenly adopted a similar interpretation as that advocated by Tzedek. Many of the comments came from some of the most influential members of congress stating that the BOP needed to adopt the intent of the law to release low-level prisoners. In January and February 2022, thousands of minimum-security prisoners were released from halfway houses, home-
confinement and prisons as direct result of the FSA final rule. Today, thousands more await the BOP to fully implement the program that will earn prisoners’ freedom or return them to society under strict rules of home-confinement or halfway house.
Recent guidancethat clarified and corrected a number of issues with the law’s implementation, including a rule that would have paused earned credits at 18 months prior to release, was accomplished as a direct result of Tzedek’s efforts. “The changes announced on November 18 simply would never have happened were it not for the Tzedek Association,” revealed the Senior BOP executive who had knowledge of the meeting but did not want to be identified.
The FSA was not Tzedek and Rabbi Margaretten’s only project. They were also the driving force behind the home-confinement provision in the CARES Act, a law implemented to address the COVID-19 pandemic. “We knew that there were going to be major issues with contagion in prison where social distancing is impossible to implement,” Rabbi Margaretten told me. “Before it was even a thought in anyone’s mind, we saw this stimulus bill as an opportunity to move vulnerable individuals to home-confinement.” In the midst of the madness associated with addressing the pandemic, Tzedek got the support of lawmakers and the Trump administration to allow the BOP to move some minimum-security prisoners from prisons to home-confinement. Last year, the Biden administration’s Office of Legal Counsel gave an opinionthat those on CARES Act should not be returned to prison even after the pandemic is declared over, an effort Tzedek championed.
Ultimately, CARES Act has sent over 11,000 prisoners from prison to home-confinement and less than 400 violated the conditions on home-confinement and were returned to prison. “That is a huge success rate,” Rabbi Margaretten
said of the program, “and proof that many can return home sooner while keeping the overall society safe.”
Members of Congress are taking notice. In a speech on the House floor last year in November 2021, Congressman Don Bacon of Nebraska called Rabbi Margaretten “a modern-day Oskar Schindler,” German industrialist credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust, for his humanitarian efforts. At an event at the Capitol in May 202 commemorating Jewish Heritage Month, Rabbi Margaretten was honored for his work and was presented with an award by Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina. In his remarks, Senator Tillis expressed thanks to Rabbi Margaretten who he said “stands for protecting and saving lives. This is what inspires him to work on improving our criminal justice system and it’s also what inspires him to work on other humanitarian causes.” At the same event, Senator Mike Lee of Utah called Rabbi Margaretten’s “fantastic work” on the FSA “indispensable”.
In April 2022, Rabbi Margaretten received the Medal of Valor in Hollywood by the Simon Wiesenthal Centerfor his humanitarian work on criminal justice. Tzedek was also noted for its efforts for saving the lives of over 1,300 high risk individuals in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over Kabul, as well as the lives of Ukrainians caught up in the horrors of war. For Rabbi Margaretten, he lives by the Talmudic saying, “Whoever saves a single life is as if they have saved an entire world.”
In introducing Rabbi Margaretten for the Medal of Valor, it was noted that he is the recipient of an award that usually commemorates a lifetime achievement, but he is indeed still in the middle of his work. In his acceptance, a humble Rabbi Margaretten said he accepted the award for colleagues who work with him on this important work.
Rabbi Margaretten said, “Despite our background [Hasidic Jewish], no matter how we dress, we all share a common bond, we are God’s creation, and we are our brother’s keeper. I pray that all of us should have the wisdom and courage to act when we can to help our fellow man.”