As we approach the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States, we can only hope that the Department of Justice under a Trump Administration is one that believes and, more importantly engages, in pursuing justice ethically, legally and with lots of common sense; and one that will institute department-wide accountability from both the top-down and bottom-up.
As someone that has worked in the criminal justice field for close to 35 years and strongly believed that I knew and understood our criminal justice system more than most, I am saddened to admit that I was wrong, but I am optimistic that with the right leadership and management accountability, for positive change in the Justice Department is in fact possible.
Over the past two decades, we have witnessed a nationwide rise in prosecutorial misconduct. U.S. prosecutors have engaged in unethical and illegal behavior and rarely are held accountable. Less than 2 percent of the prosecutors found to be engaged in misconduct are ever held accountable, and that’s wrong. Suborning perjury, suppressing evidence, extorting testimony and outright lying to the court for the sake of a conviction, or victory is wrong.
Selective and political prosecutions, or nonprosecutions, must stop. Over the past 10 years, I’ve witnessed the Justice Department take ethical issues or violations adjudicated in a state court and then federally indict the person for criminal conduct for political purposes. To the contrary, the Justice Department’s outright refusal to pursue criminal charges against a government official who sells their office for tens of millions of dollars is another clear demonstration of politics infecting justice.
Prosecutors should avoid unnecessarily turning people into convicted felons and pulling them out of the American workforce. A felony conviction is a life sentence of negative collateral consequences that many prosecutors, quite often, find joy in imposing. These policies and others, have resulted in the U.S. warehousing human beings, institutionalizing them, destroying them and their families and returning them to a life of nothing in most cases.
Attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions must insure that the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is completely revamped by an outsider that brings the agency into the 21st century.
The training for correctional staff isn’t close to what it should be, and their duty and emergency equipment isn’t comparable to that of their sister agencies—the FBI, DEA and U.S. Marshals. Perhaps that explains why many staff believe it’s their job to demean, demoralize and degrade inmates.
The depravation of freedom is supposed to be your punishment—not the intentional and willful head games played by staff.
The BOP pays inmates 18 to 25 cents on average per hour, yet charges them 23 cents a minutes to call their family, and 5 cents per minute to use the email system, making it virtually impossible for inmates to maintain contact with their families, something that the department encourages them to do. The Prison Legal News website reports that “studies have consistently found that prisoners who maintain close contact with their family members while incarcerated have better post-release outcomes and lower recidivism rates.”
Several years ago the U.S. Congress passed the Second Chance Act to allow the BOP to reduce an inmate’s sentence for good behavior; however, that incentive is rarely ever used; as a system, punish for bad behavior, yet have no incentives for the good. Ironically, we have the incentives by law but choose not to use them, to further punish the inmates, and their families.
For years, the BOP’s policy for most inmates is to serve a transition period in a halfway house prior to release. The inmate is then charged 25 percent of his earnings should he acquire some minimal job, to live in a rat and crime infested facility, where corruption and violence is rampant. The halfway program within the BOP deserves to be abolished and replaced with something that benefits the inmate—and society.
Under President Obama, the Justice Department has moved to a policy of utilizing alternatives to incarceration for first-time, nonviolent offenders; however, U.S. Attorneys’ offices throughout the country still seem to be pursuing maximum or lengthy penalties for first-time offenders, unless it’s drug related. So we take a person who made a mistake but is otherwise productive—i.e.,who’s working, taking care of their children, paying taxes and contributing to their communities—and we annihilate them and the possibility for a second chance by maximizing their sentence. On the other hand, we take a drug dealer who was not contributing to society and we often shorten his sentence without helping him gain any vocational skills, all but ensuring he will fail again. Something is wrong with the government’s response in both cases.
Bad people that do bad things and deserve punishment, and perhaps, that means long prison sentences. However, we are often taking good people who make mistakes and turning them into hardened criminals, institutionalizing them, and destroying their possibility to return to society a better person.
Finally, there is a culture of corruption within the BOP that is unlike any other law enforcement agency in the nation, and that’s because it’s close to impossible for an inmate to report corruption outside the facility. They have no “field associates,” and prison staff monitor all inmate emails, telephone calls and mail. If an inmate reports corruption or a crime, such as robbery or sexual assault, or anything else to internal staff, there’s a 95 percent chance it cannot be done anonymously. By preventing the inmate population and staff from anonymously reporting corruption, fraud, waste or abuse, the system is enabling this behavior.
President-elect Trump has promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington and eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse. As someone who has experienced the U.S. justice system from both sides, I know our federal prison system could be reformed in a way that makes the public safer and saves money. It’s time to act.
Bernard Kerik is the former New York City correction and police commissioner. His most recent book is From Jailer to Jailed: My Journey from Correction and Police Commissioner.