Our out-of-control criminal justice system has forgotten about justice.
Last Tuesday, eight Atlanta Public Schools employees were sentenced to prison in one of the largest school cheating scandals in American history. But you wouldn't know they were cheaters based on how they were treated in court. The educators were convicted of racketeering — a felony typically reserved for mob bosses, drug kingpins and terrorists.
The Atlanta teachers are now the latest victims of overcriminalization. They were charged under a law that had nothing to do with their actions. For years, the educators quietly changed students' answers on the Georgia Criterion-Referenced CompetencyTest, dramatically boosting the scores. They did so because the tests are tied to the state's funding for schools affecting their pay and employment.
The educators should be held responsible for their actions, but the punishment should also fit the crime. While similar scandals have occurred in 39 different states and Washington, D.C., the offenders have rarely been prosecuted as criminals. Yet in an unprecedented move, the prosecutors in Atlanta charged the educators under Georgia's "Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act" — a law passed in 1980 specifically to combat the scourge of organized crime. RICO laws, which exist at the federal level and in 33 states, empower prosecutors to go after the leaders of organized crime who order but do not personally commit crimes such as robbery, money laundering and murder. Individuals convicted under such laws can face up to 20 years in prison.
As nonviolent first-time offenders, the Atlanta educators would not likely have received any jail time but for prosecutors' unprecedented use of RICO. Three were sentenced to seven years in prison, two received two-year sentences and two will sit in jail for a year. Two others accepted plea deals with lighter sentences. Most must also pay a fine and serve probation and community service.
These punishments do not fit the crimes. Yet this is not a rarity — similar stories play out all too frequently around the country.
Overcriminalization is rampant in America's legal system. A Florida fisherman disposed of undersized fish yet was convicted of violating a law passed to prevent destruction of business records. An Arkansas company ran children's clothing consignment sales staffed by parents and volunteers and was charged with violating federal employment policies. A jilted wife in Pennsylvania doused over-the-counter chemicals on the doorknobs of her husband's lover's house and was prosecuted for violating an international treaty meant to prevent chemical warfare. The list goes on.
These and countless other examples are the result of America's unwieldy and unjust criminal code. Today, there are estimated to be about 4,500 federal crimes scattered throughout the U.S. Code's 54 sections and 27,000 pages. Add state laws plus the federal regulations that include criminal penalties and this number grows into the hundreds of thousands.
The criminal code is so broad and so confusing that Americans sometimes can't help but run afoul of it. Once they do, their lives can quickly and permanently be ruined. A staggering number of criminal laws and regulations lack "intent" and "knowledge" requirements, which protect unwitting Americans who have no reasonable way of knowing they committed a crime. The list of nonviolent offenses is so broad that everyday activity can often be criminal. And many federal and state crimes are accompanied by mandatory minimum sentences that force minor lawbreakers into unjust prison terms.
The lawmakers and regulators who created this system were well-intentioned, but we can see the harmful results all around us.
This mass imprisonment worsens America's poverty crisis. According to a Villanova University study, "had mass incarceration not occurred, poverty would have decreased by more than 20%" in recent years. This makes sense, given that a stint in prison leads to nine fewer weeks of annual work and 40% lower annual earnings for former inmates, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Overcriminalization hurts the Americans who can least afford it.
These problems will get steadily worse until policymakers reform the broken criminal justice system. State and federal elected officials can start by cutting the criminal laws that go too far — especially for nonviolent offenses — and clarifying the ones that are overly broad and subject to frequent abuse. When new laws are established, lawmakers should ensure that they enhance public safety and satisfy the requirements laid out in the Bill of Rights. And they should only expand the criminal code when there is broad consensus.
The need for action is urgent. Eight Atlanta educators are on their way to prison because they were prosecuted and convicted as if they were mob bosses, which their actions, while reprehensible, did not warrant. How many Americans have to be similarly mistreated — and how many people's lives have to be ruined — before policymakers act?
Van Jones, founder of Dream Corps/Rebuild The Dream, is a former special advisor to President Barack Obama. Mark Holden is general counsel of Koch Industries which supports the Coalition for Public Safety.
Last Friday and Saturday, Usher’s New Look Detroit participated in a hackathon at the Ford Resource and Engagement Center in partnership with #YesWeCode. New Look Mogul in Training, Ciarah Lee, and Leadership Academy Senior, Dante Hollis, participated by helping lead activities for middle school youth including ‘Expressions’, a New Look tradition where students step out of their comfort zone and share their talents.
In the Ford STEAM lab, 100 Detroit middle school students from five middle schools in the Detroit metropolitan area got the chance to become software designers. Youth invented a range of mobile applications to make learning easier, from catching up on missed assignments, to studying math and music through gaming – all the while earning $42,500 in awards and scholarships.
The two-day event challenged students to learn the basics of software coding, and then produce, or “hack”, an application to help them in school. Thank you FORD and #YesWeCode for continuing to invest in the future of the Detroit community, our youth!
Today, nearly five years from the day I was told I was being paroled after serving 19 years in prison, I found myself searching for my parole papers. As I searched through the footlocker that contained my journals,personal letters and legal documents, I was stopped in my tracks by the letter that set me on the path of transformation. Dated July 31, 1997, exactly 6 years and 3 days after David’s death, it remains just as powerful and meaningful to me today. It is by far one of the most influential letters I received in my life and guides the restorative justice and criminal justice reform work I do. Here is the letter in its entirety.
A few days ago it was the 6th year anniversary of my son’s death. I call him my “son” because he lived with me much of his life.
I’m sure you remember him in some way or another because you are the man who murdered David ******** on July 28, 1991.
It was a very difficult day for me and my family. I had spent 3 years being a caregiver for David’s mother, and she had just died of cancer in December of 1990. And now, 6 months later, I received a phone call that David was dead.
His brother was devastated. To this day, he says he didn’t only lose a brother — he lost his best friend.
David had a new baby son which God blessed him with-the baby was only 10 months old in July, 1991. David never got to see his son celebrate his first birthday- or any of them- And it was also a very painful day on July 28 because it was my daughter’s birthday. She and David were born only 3 months apart. Every year on her birthday, our hearts ache for the dear one we’ve lost.
David also had 2 daughters. One is now in college, and although she is a very bright girl, she is having terrible bouts of depression because her dad is gone. The rest of our family tries to help her but there is an emptiness in her life that no one else can fill.
Now what I want you to know, other than these painful things that you have brought upon my family, is that I love you, and I forgive you. How Can I do less? Because God loves you, and I am a Christian so I humbly follow his guidance. His word tells me (in the Bible) that He loves us all, no matter what we have done or how bad we think we are. And we are to love one another no matter what the circumstances. You may think your life is a mess but you are special. And God’s able to pick you up and cause you to go on. He can clean up your messes, no matter WHAT they are. God can be your best friend. Nobody in the the whole world will ever love you like God loves you.
Because I know God brings hope and joy into our lives if we let Him, I suggest you set aside a year and just let God love you. Just approach him as a little child would…Crawl up in his lap and let Him love you. Through his son, Jesus, he can fill that empty hole down deep inside — the part of us that is missing if we live our livew without Him. God says, “You shall know the TRUTH, and the TRUTH shall make you free.” (John 8:32) God is the Truth, and He can bring peace and rest, and so many other wonderful things.
Nancy gave me a second chance and today I am the founder of the Atonement Project, a recipient of the 2012 Black Male Engagement (BMe) Leadership Award, a 2013 MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, a Fellow in the inaugural class of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Community Leadership Network, and teach a course on the Atonement Project at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 2014, I shared my story on the world-renowned TED stage and in just four months my talk reached more than 1,000,000 views.
I currently serve as the Director of Strategy for #Cut50, a national bipartisan initiative to safely and smartly reduce our incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years by convening unlikely allies, elevating proven solutions, and communicating a powerful new narrative.
Huffington Post: Seizing the Moment to Reform a Criminal Justice System that Hurts Families and Communities
On July 24, 2004, I stood in an overly air-conditioned courtroom in Gainesville, Georgia, and watched as my then-husband pled out to six years in prison for a non-violent crime. As the bailiff handcuffed him and began to lead him out of the room, I looked down at my two-month-old daughter and felt fear wash over me. Without having gone to college, I'd been unable to find a job making more than the minimum wage, and I knew that my income alone would not be enough to pay for our household and provide food for my daughter and me.
As the days passed, I began to feel a growing sense of rage. Sentencing a person to six years in prison would not only rip apart his family, but he would lose his job, his home, and any support he had within the community. How could there not be a more logical approach to addressing crime?
My husband was taken out of the courtroom that day and sent to a diagnostic facility, where we would be unable to have any contact with him for the first six weeks of his incarceration. Not knowing anything about prisons besides what I'd seen on television, I imagined the worst. I lay in bed terrified at night, kept awake with worry, wondering if I would get a call telling me he'd been hurt or possibly worse.
One of the most difficult aspects of being a family member of a prisoner is the ambiguity. Due to overcrowding in the prison system and constraints on space, inmates are moved around frequently and without warning. You have no idea whether or not your loved one will get the letters you send, what time they will be able to call you, or even if they will be there when you show up for a visit.
The experience of having a family member in prison was not only emotionally debilitating, but financially, as well. Phone calls were $17. We could barely afford the cost of gas to drive hundreds of miles to a county facility far away from our home. I watched every penny I spent so I could add funds to his commissary to buy basic provisions like pens, paper and shampoo, which in my mind, should have been provided by the prison itself. It's almost as though the system was set up to destroy families and disintegrate any support networks an inmate may have.
Determined to find solutions to the injustice I'd experienced, I decided to pursue my education and become a criminal-defense attorney. I took my first job out of law school representing death-row inmates in California. I continued to learn how the prison system's poor design actually encouraged crime by dehumanizing inmates and forcing them to focus all their energy on surviving its harsh and dangerous conditions, rather than providing meaningful opportunities to learn new skills or prepare for successful reintegration back into society. Frustrated with the system, I co-founded #cut50 and set out to smartly and safely cut the prison population in half in the next 10 years.
At #cut50, we believe there is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform our broken criminal-justice system and institute smarter, cheaper, and more efficient ways of addressing crime. We also believe that incarceration impacts all of us and it will take a wide range of voices -- especially those directly impacted by the system -- to create a new narrative of justice and redemption. Most importantly, we see each of the more than two million people currently locked behind bars in this country as individuals who have the potential to contribute to their communities and succeed outside the walls of prison and jail.
And we are not the only ones. Last month, more than 600 people -- including 10 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, three GOP governors, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Labor, and even the President, who appeared via video -- took the day to reflect on our justice system and band together to call for reform at the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform. Their powerful voices echoed the same message throughout the day -- putting more than two million Americans behind bars has made our streets more dangerous, wasted our precious resources, and created an even bigger racial divide in this country. It is time to change not only how we, as a nation, address crime, but how we view and treat those who have committed crimes.
Over the past three weeks, we have highlighted What's Working in Criminal Justice Reform. These innovative programs and policies, coupled with the political energy and determination we saw at the Bipartisan Summit, will lay the foundation for real transformative reforms.
Let us work together to ensure that individuals are successfully diverted from entering the prison system to begin with and help restore justice to communities, empower people with new opportunities, and save precious tax dollars to make neighborhoods across the country stronger. We are at a unique moment in time. Let's seize the opportunity and tear down walls of injustice to build new hope for millions of people around the country.
With one in 100 Americans currently incarcerated at costs upwards of $80 billion per year, political leaders from across the political spectrum united for reform. From ALEC and Koch Industries to ACLU and Drug Policy Alliance, the summit served as the launchpad for unlikely alliances in 2015.
The summit - hosted by Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Donna Brazile and Pat Nolan - brought together more than 90 speakers to share insights and innovative solutions to our country’s mass incarceration problem.
Among the speakers were 3 GOP Governors and 10 members of Congress - both Republicans and Democrats - who participated in person or by video.
Featured speakers included: Attorney General Eric Holder, David Simon (The Wire creator), Donna Brazile, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, John Forté (Fugees), Piper Kerman (Orange is the New Black author) and Sen. Cory Booker.
President Obama, himself, even made a cameo — via video.
In a pre-taped interview between he and David Simon, the President talked about the national shift in conversation about prison reform and the real-life inspiration behind "Omar Little,” Obama’s favorite character from the hit show. Watch the full video here.
Did you miss the summit?
- WATCH the full summit here.
- Click to see our behind the scenes photo gallery here.
- WATCH a behind the scenes video of Van and Newt recapping the #bipartisansummit.
- Check out our media coverage.
- Check out our storify here.
- Visit the official Bipartisan Summit website.
WE’RE JUST GETTING STARTED. This is just one of many upcoming bold, bipartisan and high-impact convenings to promote one idea: American can safely and smartly cut our prison population in half over the next 10 years.
Marlin Page, founder of Sisters Code, speaks with Joy Reid about efforts to close the gender gap in coding and emerging technologies. Plus: Sisters Code graduate Sherri Crowe, #YesWeCode founder Van Jones and the Detroit Free Press' Stephen Henderson join the discussion.
There's bipartisan backing, but that doesn't mean a bill will pass
Van Jones likes to call his Republican buddies “brother.” As in Brother Mark (Holden, the general counsel at Koch Industries), or Brother Matt (Kibbe, the CEO of the conservative group FreedomWorks). Jones, a Democratic activist and former Obama adviser, beamed as he strolled the halls of a cavernous Washington hotel Thursday, clasping shoulders and squeezing hands with one unlikely conservative ally after the next. And Jones wasn’t the only one basking in the warm vibes of bipartisanship.
If you mistakenly wandered into the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform, you might have thought you had fallen into an alternate universe. Scores of liberal and conservative activists, policy wonks and lawmakers gathered for an all-day conference that seemed to defy all the old saws about Washington gridlock. Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich lauded Democratic Senator Cory Booker, who volleyed back praise for his Republican partners. Even Attorney General Eric Holder drew warm applause in a ballroom dotted with conservatives.
But as unusual as that may be in Washington, it’s becoming a routine sight when it comes to criminal justice reform. In recent months, a growing bipartisan alliance has formed around the need to change a prison system that critics say is broken and bloated. Thursday’s crowd was the clearest sign yet of the coalition’s breadth. “When you have an idea whose time has come,” said Jones, one of the hosts of the summit, “it winds up being an unstoppable force.”
Maybe. But it’s never easy in Washington to channel a cause into actual change. A show of force is not a strategy. Despite general agreement about the problems riddling the justice system, it remains unclear how a collection of interest groups with divergent ideologies can marshal their money and organizing muscle to move bills through a fractious Congress—all before the 2016 presidential election puts the legislative process on pause.
Washington (CNN) An overhaul of U.S. criminal justice laws looks increasingly possible, and the 2016 presidential campaign just might give the effort a shot in the arm, says Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey.
The issue was the focus of Thursday's Bipartisan Summit for Criminal Justice Reform. The event was sponsored by groups that make odd bedfellows -- from the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Koch Industries.
Booker and former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich were among the headliners for the day-long summit, intended to build momentum behind a host of reforms that so far haven't gotten much traction in Congress.
Also there: Big crime-drama names like David Simon, who wrote HBO's "The Wire," and Piper Kerman, the inspiration behind Netflix' "Orange is the New Black."
The White House released a video of Simon and President Barack Obama discussing the criminal justice system and "The Wire's" depiction of the issues contributing to high rates of incarceration. In it, Obama emphasized the need to "humanize" both criminals and police, to create a better dialogue on criminal justice reform.
"In the same way you've got to be able to humanize those involved in the drug trade, we have to remind ourselves that the police — they've got a scary, tough, difficult job and if the rest of society is saying, 'Just go deal with this, and we don't want to hear about it ... just keep it out of our sight lines, and it's not our problem,' we're betraying them as well," he said.
But he expressed confidence the current interest in criminal justice reform would at least produce a "more productive way of thinking" about the problems.
Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, said at the summit that there were still challenges in enacting real reforms.
"There is a lot of good legislation and a lot of good energy, but I'm telling you there is tremendous work to do to get those bills out of committee and onto the floor," Booker said.
Though void of any likely 2016 aspirants, Booker said reform supporters such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul will help raise the issue's profile.
Booker said each of them have backed key measures that are pieces of the broader push to overhaul a system that he said leaves people facing far-too-long "mandatory minimum" sentences for non-violent offenses, and then imposes more burdens upon their re-entry to society.
"The reality is what has made this issue have so much more strength in force has really been the courage of Republican leaders around the country to step up and step out," Booker said, crediting libertarian super-donors the Koch brothers, anti-tax leader Grover Norquist as well as other fiscal and religious conservatives.
Booker and Paul last year introduced the REDEEM Act, which would divert child offenders from the criminal justice system, automatically seal or expunge their records in some cases, and prohibit child offenders from being kept in solitary confinement.
"There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that our criminal justice system is in need of reform," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R, Virginia. "The issue of over-criminalization is an issue of liberty. We must work together to improve our criminal justice system so that it works fairly and efficiently and reduces crime across the United States."
The Obama administration is “all in” on criminal justice reform, Labor Secretary Tom Perez said Thursday.
"We’re all in on this, we’re all in at the Department of Justice, we’re all in at the White House. We’re all in throughout this administration,” he said at a conference on the issue. "This is the real deal.”The secretary had just finished a speech on putting ex-cons back to work, and getting people into the workforce instead of prison in the first place.
“A good job is the most effective recidivism reduction strategy I can think of,” he said.
He made the remarks at the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform in Washington. His speech came after a day of panels and speeches from notable advocates for criminal justice reform — a broad issue area that ranges from changing prison conditions to altering the mandatory sentences for drug crimes.
There was a significant administration presence at the event. President Obama appeared in a video with “Wire” creator David Simon, while Attorney General Eric Holder appeared earlier in the day.
“There is an increasing realization on the left, but also on the right, politically, that what we’re doing is counterproductive,” Obama said in the video. “We’re all responsible for at least finding a solution to this.
Holder was equally emphatic.
"We must keep fighting for the high ideals that have animated our nation since its inception. And we must keep standing up and speaking out — no matter the challenges we face — to eradicate victimization and end injustice in all its forms," he said.
"As you know, my time in this administration will soon come to an end. But I intend to remain engaged in this work — because, for me, it has never been only a professional obligation; it is a personal calling, and a moral imperative," he added.
The comments — and the administration’s visibility at the event — signal the growing interest in pursuing criminal justice reform on both sides of the aisle.
Several lawmakers appeared at the conference in the morning, including Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii). House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) appeared in a video shown at the event.
WASHINGTON — The conference rooms of a Marriott hotel in Washington turned into the headquarters of an unlikely mutual appreciation society on Thursday as progressives and conservatives met to discuss what has become a rare, and surprising, bipartisan issue: criminal justice reform.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican who once made tough-on-crime policies a plank of his 1994 Contract with America, complimented Sen. Cory Booker, the Democrat from New Jersey, for spearheading efforts in Congress to overhaul the statutes that flourished during that era. Booker, in turn, praised the work of conservatives on the issue, among them the Koch brothers, who are best known for pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into electing Republican candidates for office, but have now turned their attention to criminal justice advocacy.
Less than a decade ago, it would have been unimaginable to see groups as varied as Koch industries and the American Civil Liberties Union working together on criminal justice reform. This is perhaps the only forum in U.S. politics where civil rights activist Van Jones, one of the organizers of the summit, and Piper Kerman, author of the memoir "Orange is the New Black" on which the Netflix series is based, might share a common agenda with Matt Kibbe, the director of the tea-party aligned libertarian advocacy group, Freedomworks.
“Fifteen years ago, criminal justice reform was a pretty lonely endeavor,” said Vanita Gupta, the top civil rights attorney at the Department of Justice. “There were few people, I would say, from the right or the left that were taking on the issue and championing the cause. And when those of us from the right and the left started working together several years ago, we got sideways looks at us, suspicion, and skepticism. Our day has come.”
Still, reaching consensus on the need to re-examine the policies contributing to the United States’ unprecedented prison population, the largest in the world, may actually be easier, according to activists and elected officials at the summit, than getting reform passed through Washington’s partisan gridlock.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said the politics of the issue are still fraught. “There’s no downside to voting stupid on crime,” Scott notes. “Have you ever heard anybody get in trouble by voting for mandatory minimums?”
So far the available solutions are piecemeal: a number of bills addressing various components of the criminal justice system have been introduced in Capitol Hill. A broad coalition of lawmakers, led by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah and Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho has come together to sponsor the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015, which would cut mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders in half. Booker and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. teamed up to introduce the REDEEM Act, which would allow nonviolent offenders to petition a judge to have their criminal records sealed. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga. and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. are working on a bill that would strengthen resources for mentally ill offenders, directing them to treatment facilities instead of jail cells. And Senators John Cornyn, R-Tex. and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. have sponsored a bill setting up a system that allows federal prisoners to shave time off their sentences by attending programs intended to reduce recidivism.
But none of those bills have yet made it out of committee. “There’s a lot of good legislation and a lot of good energy but I’m telling you there’s tremendous work to do to get those bills through committee and onto the floor,” Booker said. “My dream is that … we as a nation decide, before we even get into this presidential election, let’s make this one of the top issues in America.”
Other promising reform efforts have been felled by partisan politics and mistrust. Comprehensive immigration legislation in Congress also attracted the bipartisan support of lawmakers and stakeholders, but it eventually met its doom in the GOP-controlled House.
And some liberal commentators have questioned the motives of those on the other side of the political aisle when it comes to criminal justice reform—particularly the involvement of the Koch brothers.