Bernard Kerik Delivers Compelling Call For Prison Reform

Former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik made a powerful case for prison reform Jan. 29 in his first public speech after his release last May. Bernard Kerik Prison Reform OAR Jan. 29, 2014

"We over-prosecute," he told his audience in the Washington, DC suburb of Roslyn, VA following release from a Maryland minimum security prison after a three-year term on corruption charges.

He called the expense to both taxpayers and defendants "unsustainable," and the process needlessly cruel and counter-productive.

The regional civic group Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR) hosted Kerik -- and introduced him as having a unique position in American history to urge reform.

Shown at right in a file photo from a recent appearance on NBC's Today show, he was put behind bars after leading two of the nation's largest law-enforcement agencies. Also, he had been the most decorated police officer in New York City history, most of it for his work as a detective.

Under the administration of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, he supervised 133,000 inmates as New York City's Corrections Commissioner for six years until 2000. Then he became the city's police commissioner in a job managing 55,000 employees.

But during those years, Kerik said, he failed to realize the tragic waste in the prison system even when he was regarded as a reformer running New York's Riker's Island facility or a tough-on-crime commissioner under Giuliani, a fellow Republican.

"I thought I knew the system," he said. "But I was quick to learn (upon his own imprisonment) that the system doesn't work."

"It's embarrassing for me to say," he continued. "I didn't understand it. I didn't feel it. My job was to take bad guys off the street."

I attended his talk in part because the Justice Integrity Project covered his federal prosecution extensively in 2009 and 2010. Along with Newsmax and Geraldo Rivera of Fox News, we were virtually the only outlet to document the unfair prosecution and judicial procedures in the latter stages of his case.

His speech on reform attracted strong news coverage, including articles by the New York Daily News, Wall Street Journal, and Huffington Post excerpted below.

Kerik, nominated by President George W. Bush in 2004 to become the cabinet secretary overseeing the Department of Homeland Security, withdrew from consideration a week later and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges involving acceptance of condo renovations at below market cost from a contractor seeking other business from the City of New York. Federal authorities then bootstrapped matter into a far more serious set of allegations and persuaded the trial judge to put Kerik into solitary confinement pre-trial until he agreed to plead guilty to eight felony counts.

Kerik did not complain about his own case, and focused exclusively on his observations the system and its harm to others, including crime victims, taxpayers, defendants and defendant families.

His main point was that political leaders, especially at the federal level, are too frightened about being called "soft on crime" to do anything but make a bad system worse.

Kerik said a first-time offender can have life ruined by possessing cocaine weighing as little as five grams (the same as a nickel in currency). Such possession can bring a 10-year prison sentence. A commercial fisherman can be Bernard Kerik and Matt Lauerimprisoned for over-fishing and be permanently banned.

"That's insane," said Kerik. Those undergoing such sentences are likely to come out as hardened criminals, he continued, thereby posing a threat to society after great expense to taxpayers and great harm to the defendants' families. Kerik made some of the same points in a November interview with NBC's Matt Lauer, shown at left. A video is available on via NBC.

Kerik said states, including such politically conservative "law-and-order" jurisdictions as Texas, are reducing mandatory minimum sentences and undertaking other reforms. But the federal system, he said, has no requirement to balance budgets and therefore continues with a "broken system."

Among specific reforms he urged were more discretion for sentencing judges and wardens to vary sentences according to individual circumstances. He urged creation of an option of "boot camps" for first offenders whereby upon completion of a 12-month sentence that included work, skills training and good behavior their record could be vacated.

Also, he and other speakers urging training and hiring so that ex-inmates could have hope for more than joblessness or a minimum wage job upon release as an alternative to crime. He noted that most jobs requiring a license, including barber, are foreclosed to ex-convicts.

During Q&A, I asked if the for-profit prison industry has an impact on current practices.

Kerik responded that corrections is an $80 billion a year industry. That level of money creates perverse incentives, he said. For example, one profit-company likes a 20-year contract with a guaranteed rate that a facility will be filled to at least 90 percent capacity.

"There's no way I could have guaranteed that when I was running Riker's Island," he said, without operating under an unspoken incentive to violate rights if needed to meet the capacity guarantee.

Kerik combined his observations, experiences, statistics and a compassionate call to action in a highly effective talk that riveted the audience in the Artisphere, a community arts center located in the former site of the Newseum.

Bernard KerikKerik continues to attract strong criticism because of his convictions, the underlying offenses, other rumored scandals in the past, and his association with Giuliani and Bush. New York news organizations have seemingly made the word "disgraced" a part of his name, and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show included him Jan. 29 in a segment on New York politicians caught in scandal.

But it is an opportunity missed not to hear what he is saying, as well as those others. The sponsor of the evening, for example, was the construction company Miller and Long, which has made special efforts to hire ex-offenders.

"I've stood up here for the past hour," Kerik concluded, "talking about how hard it is [for the average felon] to get a job. I can't job." To be clear, the context of his comment was not to complain about his personal situation but the cost to society of creating vast numbers of long-term inmates who will be released into society with no training and few options. He especially noted that 70 percent of more than two million inmates are African-American, with trends continuing to cause enormous distress among families and communities.

Reform could save the vast amounts of dollars and many wasted lives, he said. "I'm not the first person to say this. [But] no one with my background and experience has ever been in the system. I can only hope that my voice penetrates the walls of Congress."  

“You know what prison is? What is prison? Prison is a training ground for thuggery and criminality,” he said. “Now if there’s some congressman or senator that sits on the judiciary who thinks that that’s a really good thing for society, they need to have their heads examined.” 


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Update: PolicyMic, NYPD Commissioner-Turned-Felon Has a Message For Us Now That He's Been to Prison, Laura Dimon, April 9, 2014. As the top cop who landed behind bars, he's arguably one of New York's most controversial figures. Bernard Kerik, 58, served as the police commissioner of New York City under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. In 2010, after years of litigation, he was convicted of tax fraud and false statements and was sentenced to four years in federal prison. Today, he is a convicted felon. On a recent bright morning in a Manhattan skyscraper office, Kerik leaned his head against the glass window and stared down at the two distinct square plots where the Twin Towers once stood. He was there when those towers fell. He lost many of his men that day and saw unimaginable things — people jumping out of the burning buildings, some holding each other as they went. That was then. That was when he headed up 55,000 personnel and a $3.2 billion budget. That was before Giuliani recommended him to Bush, before the thorough vetting process uncovered a questionable past.  He turned around and said, "I've never seen this view before." There was a palpable sadness in his voice. He's been called a hero and a leader, a liar and a crook. But praise or condemn him, it's hard to argue that he doesn't have a damned interesting story. He said that throughout his career, he thought he understood the criminal justice system. But it wasn't until the tough "lock 'em up" cop with the Tony Soprano-like swagger was suited up in prison uniform, mopping floors and living in a small room with three other men that he realized: He knew "nothing," he said, until he was on the other side of the bars. He was one of 2.4 million prisoners in the United States. Because of mass incarceration, the country now accounts for 25% of the world’s imprisoned despite making up, overall, just 5% of the world's population. In the U.S., one in every 108 adults was in prison or jail in 2012 and 1 in 28 children has a parent behind bars. Currently, 65 million Americans have a criminal record — that is greater than the total populations of England and Wales combined. The numbers are staggering and reflect a deeply troubled system. Kerik has some insights about how to begin fixing it.

Washington Post, Eric Holder makes case for felons to get voting rights back, Adam Goldman, Feb. 11, 2014. Holder said that current laws forbidding felons from voting make it harder for them to reintegrate. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Tuesday called on states to repeal laws that prohibit felons from voting after their release from prison, urging changes that could allow millions more across the country to cast ballots. In a speech at Georgetown University Law Center, Holder said, “It is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.” Holder said that current laws forbidding felons from voting make it harder for them to reintegrate into society. He pointed to a recent study that showed that felons in Florida who were granted the right to vote again had a lower recidivism rate.

Bernard Kerik as policemanNewsmax, Former Top Cop Kerik Launches Fight for Prison Reform, Alexandra Ward, Jan. 30, 2014. Bernard Kerik, who led New York City’s police department through the 9/11 terror attacks but later went to prison for tax evasion, is launching a new career as an advocate for criminal justice reform. He's one of the only people, he says, that can bring systemic change to a structure that incarcerates more than two million Americans every year but is "in dire need of repair." He is shown at left as a highly decorated New York policeman early in his career, and  below at right speaking Jan. 29. (Photos at right and above right courtesy of OAR-Arlington.)

New York Daily News, Former top cop Bernie Kerik makes first public speech since release from prison, Joseph Straw, Jan. 30, 2014. Kerik blasted mandatory minimum federal sentences for non-violent, first-time offenders, which can send people convicted of minor drug possession to prison for more than a decade. Former top cop Bernie Kerik on Wednesday made his first public speech since his release from prison, pushing reform of a system he both policed and served time in. Kerik blasted mandatory minimum federal sentences for nonviolent first-time offenders, which can send people convicted of minor drug possession to prison for more than a decade."I can tell you, there is no benefit to society in doing that. There is none," Kerik said. He called prison "a training ground for criminality and thuggery," and referred to mandatory minimums as "draconian" and "outrageous." Kerik said he backs shorter sentences with court-ordered education or community service to follow.

Bernard Kerik OAR-ArlingtonWall Street Journal, Out of Prison, Kerik Says Fewer Should Go There, Andrew Grossman, Jan. 30, 2014. Former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik said Wednesday that he came out of prison a changed man. The biggest change? He thinks a lot fewer people should be sent to prison. In his first public speech since his release, Mr. Kerik told a group that works to rehabilitate prisoners that the more than three years he spent in a minimum security federal prison camp in Maryland revealed a new side of American law enforcement that he hadn’t thought much about during a long law-enforcement career. “The system doesn’t work the way I thought it would on a number of different fronts.” Kerik said he served with young men who received long prison terms for possession of just five grams of crack cocaine—the weight of a nickel, he said, tossing one to the floor—and conspiracy to sell it. (The Obama administration is moving to commute sentences of some such non-violent offenders.) Their stories and his time in prison, he said, made him realize that long sentences did more harm than good.

Salon, Former NYPD commissioner and inmate Bernard Kerik is now fighting for prison reform, Elias Isquith, Jan. 30, 2014. Having been both NYPD commissioner as well as an inmate in federal prison, Bernard Kerik has more experience with America’s penal system than just about anyone. And now that he’s no longer incarcerated, he’s advocating for change.

Huffington Post, First Jail Chief, Then Prisoner, Bernard Kerik Jumps Into Fight For Prison Reform, Saki Knafo, Jan. 29, 2014. He was one of the brightest stars in law enforcement. Then a conviction for tax evasion and seven other felony charges landed him behind bars. On Wednesday evening, in his first speech as a free man since his release from a federal prison in Cumberland, Md., last spring, Bernard Kerik tried to refashion himself as an exceptionally well-qualified advocate for criminal justice reforms. Speaking at a center in Arlington, Va., that provides services to former prisoners, Kerik called the mass incarceration of Americans “unsustainable” and argued for sweeping, fundamental changes. Kerik is shown at right in a file photo from his days as a highly decorated policeman.

Politico, Out of prison, Kerik urges reform, Maggie Haberman, Jan. 28, 2014. Bernie Kerik, the former Rudy Giuliani aide and New York City police chief who spent years locking people up, is using his own time in a federal prison as a launch pad to call for a system-wide overhaul. Kerik will give a speech in Arlington, Va., on Wednesday, arguing that the criminal justice system is “in dire need of repair,” the former Department of Homeland Security nominee told Politico in an interview. “No one with my experience and background has ever been inside the system, so it’s given me a real, one-of-a-kind, very unique experience,” Kerik said. Kerik was soaring to new heights in a crime-fighting career after serving as Giuliani’s police commissioner when he was nominated by former President George W. Bush to lead DHS in 2004. He was released from federal prison after serving three years behind bars, a time that he says altered his view of the way in which the system shatters lives.

Washington Post, Texas leads the way in needed criminal justice reforms, Editorial Board, Jan. 28, 2014. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said last week that he favors decriminalizing marijuana in  his state, which used to define law-and-order politics. In fact, Texas hasn’t been living up to its lock-’em-up reputation for a while now; it is one of many states that has been looking for safe ways to reduce the number of people behind bars — saving money and wasted lives. The nation is seeing a swing back from the excesses of the end of the last century, when seemingly every major politician had to propose harsh anti-crime policies to be taken seriously. The swing is to the good. A report from the Urban Institute examines the early experience of 17 states now participating in a criminal justice reform initiative that invests savings from reducing prison populations into programs to decrease first-time incarceration and recidivism. Sponsored by the Justice Department, the program includes better drug treatment programs and post-release services. Policymakers have geared parole monitoring toward mending behavior with graduated punishments that increase in severity with continued non-compliance. The 17 states project savings of as much as $4.6 billion over the next several years. The reductions in human suffering are incalculable.

Winner Video / YouTube,

%20" target="_blank">Gail Arnall from OAR speaks on recidivism, Feb. 5, 2014. Last week during a talk in Washington DC, Bernard Kerik gave his first public speech after being released from prison. He spoke on behalf of OAR (Offender Aid Restoration). We were lucky enough to speak with Gail Arnall after the talk about her thoughts on recidivism.

NBC TV Today Show, 'Not about me being a victim': Ex-NYPD Chief Kerik defends his criticism of prisons, Eun Kyung Kim, Nov. 4, 2013. Appearing on NBC's Today Show, convicted felon and former Homeland Security nominee Bernard Kerik continued his criticism of "flawed" sentencing guidelines, while insisting he’s not trying to create public sympathy for himself. “It’s not about me being a victim of the system. I think the system is flawed. I think the system is supposed to punish. It’s not supposed to annihilate personally, professionally, financially,” he told Today's Matt Lauer in the second of a two-part interview with the former nominee for Homeland Security secretary. “It’s not supposed to destroy families. The punishment must fit the crime. I was in prison with commercial fisherman that caught too many fish that spent three years in prison,” he said. “Their licenses were removed. They’re not going to be able to work in that industry for the rest of their lives. That’s a life sentence.” During an interview that aired last week, Kerik handed Lauer a nickel to demonstrate the amount of cocaine that sends an offender to prison. “I was with men sentenced to ten years in prison for five grams of cocaine. That's insane.” he said.

Bernard and Hala Kerik Maxine Susseles PhotoNieman Watchdog, Another Look At The Kerik Case, Andrew Kreig, April 7, 2010. The judge in the corruption trial of Bernard Kerik, acting at the request of prosecutors, suppressed testimony that could have been helpful to the former New York police commissioner. Kerik, a career law enforcer much-honored for valor as a city police detective, has described himself as petrified during the proceedings for fear of what the judge was doing. Kerik is portrayed immediately afterward with his wife, Hala, in photos by Maxine Susseles, used with permission here.

The charges against Kerik largely stemmed from his underpayment for home improvements made by a city contractor in 1999, his excessive tax deductions later, and his misleading statements in 2004 to White House vetters after his nomination as cabinet secretary. After years of increasing notoriety in the New York press in part based on this prosecution plus scandal and leaked innuendo, Kerik pleaded guilty to eight felony counts in November 2009. That was after his judge ordered him into solitary confinement pre-trial without bond, denied him a major defense witness, released his medical records to the media and threatened him with a court-ordered loss of his lawyers for what the judge regarded as a conflict of interest. At that point, Kerik gave up fighting for his freedom. He had exhausted his savings and credit with $4.6 million in legal bills, and threw himself on the court’s mercy.

Washington Post, U.S. to push for early release of more federal prisoners, Sari Horwitz, Jan. 30, 2014. Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole says the White House will seek candidates for clemency.