Standing along with Travis County deputies and Texas NAACP leaders Monday, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik called for changes to the criminal justice system, pointing to what he described as flawed policies like mandatory minimum sentences and the lack of transitional programs available for inmates while serving time.
“We live in a country today where a felony is a lifetime conviction with collateral consequences that last until the day you die. That’s got to stop,” Kerik said. “If you do your time, you should be given your civil and constitutional rights back. We are creating permanent underclass American citizens by not doing that.”
Kerik, who is also the founder of the nonprofit American Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform, developed many of his views on criminal justice policies during both his time working as a commissioner and as a prisoner, when he served three years of a four-year sentence in federal prison for charges including criminal conspiracy and tax fraud.
While in prison, he met young men who were serving decades for first-time offenses and saw criminal justice problems firsthand, he said.
“I came to realize very quickly that our sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums are draconian to say the least,” he said.
Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, standing with Kerik at a press conference Monday at the Travis County Correctional Complex, said the United States imprisons too many people for too long and at too great a cost.
“The American criminal justice system is not functioning as it should,” he said. “It is not in the interest of public safety.”
Kerik applauded Hamilton’s work in improving programs for inmates and said Texas lawmakers and NAACP leaders’ ability to work together to change policies gives him hope for the rest of the nation.
“If they can do that, then every state in the country should be doing it,” Kerik said. “I think every state and every prison administration in this country should be looking at what Sheriff Hamilton is doing here.”
Despite the strides Texas has made, Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder said counties across the state need to do more work, particularly investing more money into programs for inmates.
“Public safety is not all about having more officers,” Linder said. “It’s also about investing in the inmate population.”