Recently, a flurry of media coverage accompanied a former inmate’s complaints about the grim reality of incarceration in the United States. Old news? Except that this former inmate was Bernard Kerik – once New York City’s Corrections’ Commissioner, top cop, and the face of Mayor Rudolph Guiliani’s crackdown on crime.
It’s tempting to write off Kerik’s forehead slapping revelation as one more example of “where you stand depends on where you sit” – a law and order version of Mitt Romney denouncing Obamacare. What is striking and significant, though, is that Kerik was surprised by what he learned. It is hard to believe his shock, though, since he served as the nation’s youngest warden in the late 1980s before taking over one of the largest corrections systems in the country, including supervision of the infamous Rikers’ Island. But the reality is the criminal justice system has grown so fast and so far in its reach, that even those in the middle of the system cannot see its breadth. Mass incarceration, and its consequences, hides in plain sight.
Kerik rose to fame as the Police Commissioner in the wake of 9/11, leading the New York Police Department’s response to terrorism. During his time, overall crime in the City declined.
But his star fell almost as quickly as it rose. Shortly after being nominated by President George W. Bush to head the Department of Homeland Security in 2004, Kerik became embroiled in a scandal. He lost the nomination and eventually pled guilty to tax evasion and lying to federal officials in 2009. He was sentenced to four years in federal prison.
After serving three years in a minimum-security prison, Kerik is riding the media circuit advocating for changes to federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. This is “a system that is broken,” he said, recalling his fellow inmates – low level, nonviolent drug offenders – serving long prison sentences for possessing small amounts of cocaine. “The system is supposed to help them, not destroy them.”
It is easy to scoff at Kerik’s newfound interest in reforming the system. Kerik’s response: “You have to be on the other side of the bars . . . [to understand] what it’s like to be a victim of the system.”
Mass incarceration has ravaged communities of color across the country for decades. “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.” This comes from the man who spent much of his life sending people to prison.
With more than 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States, and 25 percent of adults in this country with a criminal record, Kerik only learned of the systemic failures once he entered federal prison – a system that has grown by 800 percent since 1980.
Mandatory minimum laws have helped to drive mass incarceration. They tie judges’ hands, preventing them from offering tailored punishments for individual offenders and frequently set a scale of punishment that is too harsh compared to the crime committed. When Congress passed a law in 1986 that imposed harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, it had lasting consequences. And while Congress rebalanced this law somewhat in 2010, almost half the federal prison population sits behind bars for drug violations.
To be sure, many offenders need to be behind bars. But as the crime rate continues to decline and research demonstrates new ways to reduce crime without exclusively relying on incarceration, the country would be wise to consider new, more rational alternatives to prison.
Fortunately, there is good news. From Republican Sen. Paul Rand to Attorney General Eric Holder, from the NAACP to the Heritage Foundation, a broad spectrum of advocates and politicians are calling for reforms to our justice system.
Kerik suggested that no one can understand the horror of this system without spending time behind bars. Perhaps that is too drastic. But we can learn from Kerik’s perspective. It should not take a stint in prison for someone to oppose mass incarceration.