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From Jailer to Jailed: Former NYPD Boss Urges Prison Reform

“It’s time for America to stop destroying lives, professions, and children. It’s time for a real national bipartisan movement to make our criminal justice system what it is supposed to be.”

So declared former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik in an April 29, 2015 commentary for CNBC. Kerik went from being one of the most influential law enforcement chiefs in the country to a convicted felon, serving three years of a four-year federal prison sentence for filing false tax returns and making false statements. The latter included lies concerning $225,000 in work done on his Bronx home by a mob-linked contractor, and lying to the White House about a Department of Homeland Security post.

“I learned that the deprivation of freedom is far more profound than one can imagine, and that going to prison is like dying with your eyes open,” wrote Kerik, who was released from federal custody in late 2013. One thing is for certain, he added: “We are creating a permanent American underclass of society that is costing the American taxpayers billions of dollars over the reported cost of incarceration.”

Kerik now knows about incarceration from both sides of the bars; in addition to his stint as New York City’s top cop, he served as Commissioner of the city’s Department of Correction. The Metropolitan Detention Complex was named in his honor, though it was changed back after he was convicted. [See: PLN, March 2007, p.30].

“The law-and-order conservatives on the right say that there must be accountability and prison is the answer ... but I would say that that there can be accountability without prison as the principal punishment in many of these first-time, nonviolent cases,” Kerik stated. “The reality is that a felony conviction of any type is a life sentence of collateral costs that includes the permanent loss of civil and constitutional rights.”

“For a country that promotes itself as one of second chances and liberty and freedom, a convicted felon’s debt to society is never paid, which contradicts our founding fathers’ premise that the punishment must fit the crime,” he continued. “A convicted felon’s punishment, no matter what the crime or mistake, no matter what the sentence, is a life-long personal and professional annihilation, that becomes a permanent second-class citizen that is never made whole again.”

Kerik said he was shocked to learn about the inflexibility and injustice of mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws, calling our nation’s criminal justice policies “insane.”

“[T]he reality is you want people to be punished. You want to punish them, okay. Punish them. But don’t destroy them,” he said.

Kerik made special note of what he termed a lost generation of youthful black men that the criminal justice system appears to be creating.

“Anybody that thinks that you can take these young black men … give them a 10 year sentence for 5 grams of cocaine, and then believe that they’re going to return to society a better person 10 years from now when you give them no life-improvement skills, when you give then no real rehabilitation, that is not benefiting society,” he stated. “The system is supposed to help them, not destroy them.”

Kerik said he had nothing to gain by speaking out. “I did my time. I’m done. This is about a system that is broken. The system isn’t going to change if you don’t open the eyes of the American people and Congress.”

“I believe in law and order and I believe in the need to keep society safe from predators, murderers, rapists, child molesters, and those involved and engaged in violent crime,” Kerik noted in his CNBC commentary. “But, when American jails and prisons around the country are primarily filled with nonviolent and many first-time offenders, it’s time for change.”

Other public officials who have served prison sentences have also spoken out for reform. The former Chief Justice of the New York State Supreme Court, Sol Wachtler, served 15 months in federal prison after his bipolar disorder led him to stalk and threaten a former girlfriend in 1993.

Wachtler said his experiences in prison, which included being stabbed while he was sleeping and placed in solitary confinement for his own protection, led him to advocate for specialized courts for the mentally ill, so they can be treated in the community and not sent to prison. He also lobbied for legislation to keep the seriously mentally ill out of New York’s solitary confinement and Special Housing Unit programs.

Wachtler, who was reinstated to the bar in 2007, said that with one in every 31 adults in prison or jail in the United States, there has to be a better way.

“We just want to lock people up,” he observed. “It makes us feel good and better.”

Former Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernest D. Preate, Jr. also served time in federal prison, and upon his release advocated for DNA testing for prisoners raising claims of innocence and for better pay for court-appointed criminal defense attorneys, particularly in capital cases.

Another ex-prosecutor who went to prison, Kenneth Abraham, who served as a deputy attorney general in Delaware, founded a criminal justice reform organization following his release called Citizens for Criminal Justice. Abraham had filed a lawsuit against prison officials, claiming they used excessive force against him while he was incarcerated on a drug-related charge. Upon losing the case in May 2014, he stated, “I’m disappointed but not entirely surprised given the massive indifference toward prisoners, and that massive indifference is a massive mistake.” [See: PLN, Feb. 2015, p.56].

Perhaps the most accomplished politico-turned-prisoner advocate was the late Charles Colson, who died on April 21, 2012 at the age of 80. A key advisor to former President Richard Nixon, Colson served time in prison for obstruction of justice stemming from the Watergate scandal, then underwent a profound religious transformation. He went on to found and lead Prison Fellowship, a worldwide ministry that serves countless prisoners.

Pointing to the incarceration of more than two million people each year in the U.S., Kerik argued for sweeping fundamental changes. “The system doesn’t work,” he declared in a 2014 address at an Arlington, Virginia center that provides assistance to former prisoners. He proposed eliminating the nation’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which require judges to sentence defendants convicted of drug crimes to long, fixed terms of confinement even when the judges themselves consider the sentences excessive.

Such laws are “out of control,” Kerik said, though he acknowledged the difficulty of convincing legislators who are scared to change them. “They don’t want to look like they’re soft on crime,” he stated, noting the influence of politics in our criminal justice system.

Those fears, however, are the result of “miseducation,” Kerik added, admitting that he was not familiar with the reality of life behind bars until he spent three years in prison himself. “And if I didn’t know, I promise you that those Congressmen don’t know,” he said. “They don’t know what it’s like to live by a clock that doesn’t move.”

In March 2015, Kerik founded the American Coalition of Criminal Justice Reform “to advocate for common sense, statistic based initiatives that will transform our outdated criminal justice system.” In a press release, the organization said it would focus on reducing prison populations, modernizing sentencing guidelines, ensuring accountability and working on the restoration of basic rights for ex-prisoners.

“If the American people and members of Congress saw what I saw, there would be anger, there would be outrage, and there would be change because nobody would stand for it,” Kerik declared in an interview with NBC’s Today Show. “You have to be on the other side of the bars. You have to see what it’s like to be a victim of the system, so to speak. There’s no way to do it from the other side.”

Kerik isn’t the only former law enforcement official to recently advocate for reforming the justice system. On January 20, 2016, over 70 federal prosecutors and police chiefs, members of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, sent a joint letter to key Congressional leaders asking them to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. The Act, S.2123, would make modest but important changes in federal sentencing statutes, including mandatory minimum laws. [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.18].

“This is a unique moment of rare bipartisan consensus on the urgent need for criminal justice reform,” the letter stated. “As law enforcement leaders, we want to make clear where we stand: Not only is passing federal mandatory minimum reform necessary to reduce incarceration, it is also necessary to help law enforcement continue to keep crime at its historic lows across the country.”


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