From NYPD Police Commissioner to Interim Minister of Interior of Iraq to Secretary of Homeland Security to convicted felon, Bernie Kerik is quite familiar with the American criminal justice system.
“19-years-old looking at 10 to 15 years for a first-time, non-violent drug offense. It’s wrong. The Constitution says the punishment should fit the crime. I believe that,” said Kerik, former inmate at the Federal Correction Institution in Cumberland, MD, discussing former fellow inmates’ charges.
Thursday, Oct. 1 marked the first Iowa Criminal Justice Summit. It was a day-long event that was held in Maucker Ballroom and worked to address the systemic problems facing our criminal justice system today. The room was filled with several prominent speakers, from local law enforcement agents and ex-offenders to policy makers, all with a common goal: criminal justice reform. The topics ranged from mental illness in relation to crime, racial disparity among arrest and incarceration and the lack of programs that aid in societal re-entry.
“When I got ready to go to prison,” said Kerik, “I expected to see some really bad guys in there. I put them there. You know who I met? I met a commercial fisherman that caught too many fish. I met a young man that sold a whale’s tooth on eBay.”
Kerik is set apart from the majority of convicted criminals because he has personally seen both sides of the American criminal justice system. Prior to his 48-month prison sentence, he was appointed Secretary of Homeland Security by President George W. Bush on Dec. 3, 2004.
One week after committing to the secretary position, Kerik withdrew, explaining that for the past two years he had been evading taxes by paying his children’s nanny in cash. Not only that, but Kerik had unknowingly employed an undocumented worker as a nanny.
President Bush’s appointment of Kerik as Secretary of Homeland Security ultimately lead to a five-year investigation, which ended with a felony conviction based on tax evasion and violating immigration law.
Since Kerik’s release in 2013, he has worked to create the American Coalition of Criminal Justice Reform. Much of Kerik’s efforts work to better the professional development programs offered to inmates and focuses on the system’s failure to uphold the constitutional requirement for proportional punishment in relation to the crime.
“When I got to prison,” said Kerik, “I met young black men, 18, 19-years-old. Five grams of cocaine. See that pen on that table right there? That’s about five grams. Ten and fifteen years in federal prison. Now, the penalty for possession of something like this in the federal system is not ten or fifteen years. But when you tack on a conspiracy, then it becomes ten or fifteen years.”
Kerik discussed the effects of plea bargaining on inmates, prison population and the corruption that attorneys and judges alike cause by “turning a blind eye.”
“[Attorneys and judges] say, ‘You’re looking at 25 [years] to life, just take 10… And you know what [the defendant] does? He gets up in front of the judge and swears on a Bible in front of the judge and says, ‘I intentionally possessed and attempted to possess and distribute 25 kilos of cocaine.’ You know what? That guy wouldn’t know 25 kilos of cocaine if it hit him in the face,” said Kerik, explaining plea bargaining.
Kerik went on to say that judges often don’t read indictments, which leads to more and more defendants being tried for a bigger crime than the one they actually committed.
Although the lawyers are aware of this, Kerik said, they choose to ignore it, which is how so many people originally convicted of a minor drug offense end up in minimum security camps.
Kerik also discussed the lack of professional development opportunities offered to prisoners. While there are federally mandated ACE classes that inmates take, the options are limited. Kerik listed classes such as chess, checkers, knitting and crocheting, among other non-professional options.
“I think the programs that are in prisons, whether it’s federal prisons or state prisons, have to be real life improvement programs,” Kerik said. “They have to teach life improvement skills; they have to teach education. They [have to] give these guys some tools to work with. Most of the things that are in the federal system that I saw completely contradict the mission statement for what the department is supposed to be doing. And I think it has to be fixed.”
Until recent years, Kerik said, the criminal justice reform movement was largely underground with little of the discourse reaching the public. The Summit worked to publicly identify and discuss today’s issues in order to begin the changing process.
According to Kerik, criminal justice reform must begin with raising awareness and educating the American people on how the system affects them.