If there is someone who knows the criminal justice system – from both ends – it is Bernard Kerik. A one-time beat cop in New York City’s 14th Division, Kerik rose through the ranks to serve on Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s security detail in the early 1990s. From there, he was appointed as commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, where he was credited for modernizing outdated facilities like Riker’s Island and reducing in-prison violence.
Based on his success running New York City’s prisons, Kerik was appointed by Mayor Giuliani as city police commissioner in 2000, and became one of the most decorated commissioners in city history. He obtained national prominence in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001, becoming a regular fixture at post 9/11 press conferences and as an analyst on numerous news outlets. In 2004, he was nominated by President Bush to head the Department of Homeland Security. Kerik was poised to become a major political player on the national stage.
And then things started to turn sour.
A number of scandals, both personal and professional, began to plague the former commissioner. The hiring of an undocumented alien as a housekeeper forced Kerik to remove his name from consideration for the Homeland Security post, and allegations of misappropriation of funds began to surface. In 2009, Kerik was convicted of tax fraud and lying under oath, and was sentenced to four years in a minimum-security prison in Maryland.
On a recent television appearance on the Today show, a recently released Bernard Kerik discussed his time behind bars, and the lessons learned there. The one main takeaway from the former corrections commissioner’s years in prison? That the system is deeply flawed, and sets up inmates for failure.
“This is about a system that is broken,” Kerik says. “The system isn’t going to change if you don’t open the eyes of the American people and Congress.”
At one point in the interview, Kerik hands interviewer Matt Lauer a nickel. For five grams of cocaine, he says, inmates are serving ten-year sentences.
“Anybody that thinks that you can take these young black men out of Baltimore and D.C., give them a ten-year sentence for five grams of cocaine, and then believe that they’re going to return to society a better person ten years from now, when you give them no life improvement skills, when you give them no real rehabilitation?” Kerik says. “That is not benefiting society.”
And the punishment extends beyond prison. “These are life sentences,” Kerik says, noting that the “felon” title will follow them for the rest of time. “… You cannot sentence people and take their constitutional rights and their civil rights for eternity for a mistake they made at some point in their life.”
Justice Fellowship, the arm of Prison Fellowship working to bring reform to the criminal justice system, has long advocated for changes to reduce overcriminalization, and for alternatives to incarceration that would be more cost-efficient while reducing recidivism. Eliminating “mandatory minimum” sentences for non-violent, first-time offenders would go a long way toward eliminating the kinds of disproportionate punishments Kerik references; while adopting a realistic approach to restoring civil rights to ex-prisoners would help in their reintegration to society.
To learn more about the work of Justice Fellowship and its efforts to make the criminal justice system a more effective tool to transform both prisoners and communities, click here.