An Interview with Simone Levine

Friday, 13 January, 2023 - 1:48 pm

I recently interviewed Ms. Simone Levine, who is running for Criminal Court Judge, Section A, on March 25. As many of you know, one of my capacities as a Rabbi is prison chaplaincy. I was intrigued to hear more about Simone’s ideas surrounding criminal justice. What I found particularly interesting was her refreshing approach to dealing with criminal cases. If I understood it correctly, Simone’s judicial philosophy pivots on this idea: “It is not enough to assess the crime when rendering judgement, we must also assess the defendant.” (More on that in the interview.)

As Rabbis we were always taught that when a person comes with a Halachic question, the Rabbi must answer the person as much as the question. I believe this is similar to what she is espousing with regards to criminal justice.

I will preface my questions with MR, and Simone’s replies with SL. It goes without saying, that this should not be seen as a political endorsement. I am simply sharing a discussion that is of interest to the Jewish community. Each of you should consider the issues and vote your conscience.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

MR: Tell me a little about yourself.
SL: I moved to New Orleans 12 years ago to marry and start a family. I have two sons. I am a member of Shir Chadash and Touro. I am an attorney with experience in New York in both defense and prosecution. Locally, I worked at the Office of the Independent Police Monitor. Following that I was a director at Court Watch NOLA. We tried to advance the idea that courtrooms were the purview of the citizenry. For folks to know what is happening in their courtrooms, we had monitors in the Criminal, Municipal, and Magistrate courts. We issued reports to the public. We developed a relationship with media and clergy. We would break down issues in a way that would help courtrooms implement best practices. Then I moved to the District Attorney’s office, with a focus on violent crimes prosecution. I have brought my kids to court during school vacation. They have experienced my dedication to public safety and criminal justice reform. As an Assistant District Attorney, I have devoted myself to the balance of fairness and justice, an approach I wish to bring to the Criminal District Court.

MR: Tell me about the position you are running for and what motivated you to do this?
SL: I feel the community needs someone who will be fair, protect public safety, and look at all sides of the situation. An attorney’s relationship with the judge should not dictate the type of justice a person receives. Many judges are good, but we need someone who isn’t swayed by clout or political machines. One need not to know someone to get a fair shake. I am also a crime victim. Crime victims can also receive or fail to receive fair justice based on who they know. Additionally, often defendants are former victims with leftover trauma in their system. I feel strongly that we need to take all of that into account when judging a case. For many of the victims they are unable to receive the help they need. They either hurt themselves or someone else. I worked on the effort to get money into the trauma recovery center at University Medical Center, enabling people to receive mental health care after being victimized by a crime. This disrupts the circular system of victims becoming perpetrators.

MR: Is there a Jewish principle or value that moves you to pursue this line of work?
SL: Tikkun Olam, of course. Also, I have a piece of art in my office at the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, with the passage of “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Working in the DA’s office is a rare opportunity to have your goal be “the pursuit of justice” and finding truth. The task is not to get a conviction but to find truth.

MR: How do we balance the need to implement serious changes in the criminal justice system, especially sentencing reform, with the need to have an effective system to deal with crime?
SL: Corruption plays a role. When attorneys can obtain a different justice because of who they know, that is not a fair system. So, a fair system is the first step. Who the lawyer is should play no role in the judge’s decision. Having a strong unbiased system will change the attitude of the community. Balancing between who needs jail and who needs rehabilitation is the next step. It should be about the person, the specific case, the risk level, not only about the sentencing range for the crime category. We need to consider the age of the person. For example, retaliatory violence is more often perpetuated by younger persons. With an older person, the risk of recidivism drops considerably. We must think both short term and long term. We must consider the safety of community and the individual. A judge must be unbiased and neutral.

MR: Do you think that a judge’s ability to be tough on crime when needed is hampered when the judge is not of African American ethnicity?
SL: I have a strong history with the black community, many African American members of my community encouraged me to run. I have a strong background because of my professional history working toward fairness in criminal court and safety in the community. While at the Office of the Independent Police Monitor one of the things that I did was monitor the interviews of the police officers who had engaged in use of force incidents against civilians. We ensured that nothing would be swept under the rug by the department in these investigations. I also monitored NOPD disciplinary cases. By doing this we offered another set of eyes providing protection against departmental retaliation for whistleblowing and discrimination. It was another avenue to ensure fairness.

MR: What make you unique in this race that people should consider casting their vote for you? SL: I have done the work. I have been in the community. I have had courage in encountering obstacles to reform and making a healthier and stronger system. I bring that courage and clear sightedness to this election and the bench. I think that to get real reform, making sure the community is heard is part of the job. It takes a lot of work, which I am willing to do. I have never done a job “part time.” I strongly believe that we can have a system that is both safe and fair. A system where victims too, have a voice in the process, and each case is seen as unique.  

MR: You asked for help in getting the Jewish community to vote in this election. What motivating message do you have to achieve the goal?
SL: Jewish people have had a history of working with the African American community that has allowed the Jewish Community to see the importance of an unbiased judge that prioritizes public safety and ensures fair and unbiased justice. Jewish people have been targeted, giving us the empathy to understand that unfair process and disparate impact occurs at all levels of the system.

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