Bernard Kerik is an accomplished law enforcement leader and advocate for people with past criminal convictions. For more than 30 years, he served his country with distinction, most notably as the 40th Police Commissioner of the City of New York. For close to six years, Mr. Kerik served as First Deputy and later Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction. His achievements as New York City’s Police and Correction Commissioner and his 30 year career in the criminal justice field have provided Mr. Kerik with a unique and one-of-a kind perspective into the U.S. criminal justice and prison systems, prompting him to become an advocate for criminal justice and prison reform in America.
We spoke with to Mr. Kerik about his work, his life, and how they have come to influence each other. Our conversation was edited for space and clarity.
How did you become involved in rights restoration issues?
Primarily from my personal experience and personal observations of the system. Since my investigation, my conviction, and incarceration, I got to witness not only what I’ve been through, but I know hundreds of other men have gone through the same thing and will go through the same thing. I know that they too will suffer the collateral cost of their conviction, which in my opinion is basically a life sentence.
Why do you think the right to vote is important?
Because it is a very small part of the way that you begin to become whole. Unfortunately, the system as it stands today never really gives you that opportunity to become whole, it never gives you the opportunity to start over. Your voting rights are a small piece of that. Unfortunately in some states, even today, people are still precluded from voting for a lifetime. It’s bizarre. The punishments in the criminal justice system are supposed to fit the crime—the reality is it does not. In many circumstances, the punishment is lifelong. To take someone’s voting rights away for a lifetime is just wrong, and what not what the system was designed for initially.
Do you recall when you personally found out about felony disenfranchisement, particularly that these rules would impact you?
When you are standing in court, there are a series of things that the judge tells you before you are sentenced. One of them is that your plea of guilty will result in your constitutional rights being removed. In all honestly, at that period of time, you don’t even know what that means. It’s not until later that you come to realize that the loss of those civil and constitutional rights are far more damaging, far more destructive, and far more impactful on your life than you imagined. For me, it wasn’t until I was actually in prison and began to do research on the collateral costs of a conviction that I realized all the civil and constitutional rights, including voting rights, that are lost as a result.
Did you find there is widespread confusion about what those collateral consequences are?
Not only is there widespread confusion amongst the inmate population on what rights are lost and at what point they are regained, there is an enormous amount of confusion within the state government themselves as far as what you are allowed to do. I realized through my research that many state agencies that will give you the wrong information in terms of voting rights and other issues. State agencies themselves have a lot of confusion when it comes to your losses. That in itself is destructive and damaging. It’s not only disheartening, but it precludes you from being able to focus and move in a positive direction in any way.
How do you try to convince people of your perspective when it comes to rights restoration?
I think it is a common sense issue. Our criminal justice system currently contradicts its own mission statement. What I mean by that is, we say that imprisonment is punishment, but that people have to be rehabilitated, and they have to return to society a better person. But everything the government does prevents this. So, do you want people to return to society a better person? Do you want them to be a more productive person for society? Because if you do, fix our system. Congress implements bills like the second chance act, for example, but under our current system there is no second chance— not a real one anyway.
Do you find that law enforcement is amenable to this issue?
Law Enforcement could get behind this if they understood the issue more. This is a human nature issue, not a law enforcement issue. Nobody is going to support something that has no impact on them, or that has nothing to do with them, or most importantly, that they don’t understand. Nobody is going to take action on an issue that has no impact on them or their family.
The objective behind the Brennan Center and my push in this fight is to educate the American public and explain why it is so damaging. To explain to them and let them know what happens when you personally and professionally annihilate someone for life. There is no benefit to society. In fact, it’s an economic burden to society. You lose the taxable income and economic spending form a person that could be working. Look, there are people in prison who are put away to protect society. But at the end of the day, more than ninety percent of the people in prison today are eventually coming home. If that’s the case, and we really want a better society, you have to give them a second chance. You have to give them their voting rights back, you have to create a mechanism by law where their conviction is abolished at some point so that it is not held against them. Right now, we do the exact opposite. Until that stops, we will just continue to diminish our society.
How do you see the future in terms of reform efforts?
I am extremely disappointed that there are legislators that know the issue, understand the problem, and yet will not act because they feel that will be perceived as looking soft on crime. Instead of doing what should be done, their resolve on this issue is to do nothing. And they know it is damaging, but still choose to nothing rather than look soft on crime. Until we have legislators that put this country first, versus their own careers, these laws are never going to change.
How do you keep yourself engaged in this reform work, despite the setbacks?
It’s all about educating the American public. If they saw what I saw, they would be outraged. There would be anger and there would be change. If they realized that the government is spending and losing billions of dollars over the cost of incarceration, they’d be angry with our failure to do what should be done. But, the bottom line is, for most of the American public, unless they have had personal discourse or participation with someone involved in the system, unless that’s the case, you don’t care. You go about your business living your life as you see fit. But once you become aware of this issue, your whole perception changes. That’s also true for the law enforcement community. What we need is the American public to push legislators to do their jobs.