By Michael Hill
People packed the pews at Christ Episcopal Church at the invitation of Sen. Cory Booker who’s determined to reform America’s criminal justice system that as of 2010 housed nearly six million people, greater than the population of 30 states.
“This twisted reality that we have now because since my lifetime we have seen this massive explosion of incarceration is being visited upon our communities in New Jersey and state as a whole and our nation in ways that most do not understand,” said Booker.
Booker says there’s an incredible consensus and bipartisan support for several reform bills he’s proposed to make it easier for ex-offenders to find jobs and to give federal judges more discretion in sentencing by ending mandatory minimum sentencing.
The senator says mandatory minimums have led to 98 percent of criminal convictions through guilty pleas because Congress has taken power away from judges and given it to prosecutors.
“In talking to many ex-offenders, people who said that I’m going to plead to this because I’m so afraid that this prosecutor’s going to take me to court and give me 20 years, give me 15 years, stacking mandatory minimums. I’m so afraid I’m going to plead to this and get the heck out of here quickly but not realize that I have a criminal conviction that’s going to last a long time,” Booker said.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman says the mandatory minimums play on defendants’ fears and leave them with few options in pre-trial conversations with prosecutors.
“We are no longer necessarily charging people with mandatory minimums just because we can. That was the policy in the Bush administration but it is not the policy any more and the policy now is that if we think the appropriate sentence is less than that we have the discretion to charge something less,” said Fishman.
“This is my problem I have now have enough access to data where I can see that an African-American and someone who is white who do the same crime that black person is 20 percent more likely to get the mandatory minimum,” said Booker.
“So if blacks are disproportionately targeted, blacks are disproportionately sentenced, blacks are disproportionately prosecuted, blacks should disproportionately be given a better defense,” said Bethel AME Church Pastor Charles Boyer.
Booker says a lot of reform needs to happen at the state level but politics can impede enactment of Obama administration laws so his bills call for giving state money as incentives.
“States in this country, as is New Jersey, are desperate for funds and resources and by using those levers at the federal government we can end up, I think, instigating a change across our country,” he said.
Vicky Stapleton of Wharton wanted police executive Jiles Ship to name three ways the general public can take to improve police relations. Ship says insist on community policing, be at the table when policy is being developed and:
“Having accreditation for police departments. We should also tie that to the fact that if your department is not meeting certain standards you don’t get state or federal funding, simple as that. Then you’ll start to see people fall in to line,” said Ship.
Panelist Craig Hirshberg welcomes transparency.
“Absolutely, I do think we should as long as we are protecting the rights of individuals who are in it. I think that’s the major concern I would have,” she said.
“While I get the drive for grand jury transparency,” said Fishman.
Fishman urged caution and protecting the many people investigated but never charged.
“Once you get a way from the high profile cases involving police shooting where there is understandable community outrage about the way things turnout that you’re doing a much bigger wholesale change to a system that protects people who ultimately do not get charged with a crime and that is a serious thing that we would have to talk about. The issue here is not so much with the grand jury system but the fact that there are prosecutors out there who make decisions that the community just doesn’t trust,” said Fishman.
Fishman touted his office and others starting a federal re-entry court that helps ex-offenders get work, housing and re-adjusted to society to avoid resuming a life of crime.
“And so when they get out the prospect of their getting jobs, the prospect of getting an education to get a job, a decent place to live are hugely formidable obstacles that we have not begun really in a serious way as a society to deal with,” Fishman said.
And the reverends on the panel agreed more resources — perhaps some savings from criminal justice reform — should be re-directed to churches.
“How would resources being directed to churches and communities of faith look like if we are the ones receiving people home, giving them a family and a set of helping them navigate the community and resources that they need in order to be successful,” said Charles Boyer.
“Until we build enough awareness for this we will not build enough public demand to rectify the system,” said Hirshberg.
The suggestions and solutions for criminal justice reform are many. The question now is is there a will, are there resources to do it.
For the full Criminal Justice Reform Forum, click on the video below: