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Former NYC police commissioner’s journey from 9/11 to prison reform

| September 12, 2018

Public safety is on the minds of many Americans throughout September as they reflect on the most horrific terrorist attack on our nation’s soil. Thousands of lives were lost due to events that took place seventeen years ago on 9/11. In the midst of the chaos, the response from law enforcement officers to firefighters, to even everyday Americans, was a heartening reminder that the U.S. binds together and drops everything to lift each other up in time of need.

Former New York City Police Commissioner and Right on Crime signatory Bernard Kerik went on Honestly Speaking with Tara Setmayer to discuss how 9/11 emboldened the U.S. to become an even stronger, more proactive nation. (Tune in at the 32-minute mark to listen to the entire conversation). Kerik has led a life of service, spending 1974 to 1977 in the U.S. Army and holding numerous law enforcement positions including a cop, a corrections officer, and a federal agent. Kerik’s leadership as commissioner in 2001 and the events following 9/11 caught the attention of then-President Bush, resulting in his nomination for Secretary of Homeland Security in 2004.

Unfortunately, Kerik had to decline the nomination just one week later as his life became completely consumed by a five-year investigation. Kerik’s mistake was failing to pay Uncle Sam the payroll tax for the salary of his children’s nanny. Kerik ended up serving three years and eleven days in federal prison on eight felony accounts. “It was a rough time and was torture for my family, especially for my two young daughters who were seven and ten when I went away, and it struck home for me in a couple different ways,” said Kerik. He realized during his time in prison that the people he always imagined filling our nation’s prison systems did not make up the majority of the actual population.

“We put thousands of people away for regulatory violations, administrative violations, things that could be dealt with alternatively instead of turning them into crimes.” Kerik gave the example of commercial fishermen who were locked up for catching too many fish or caught a certain fish out of season. He also cited pointed to a man he knew personally who was caught selling a whale’s tooth on Ebay. Putting those kinds of men in prison, rather than fining them or suspending their license, does nothing to further public safety. It can actually perpetuate recidivism by locking up otherwise harmless men with legitimate criminals, only to let them back out with a criminal record that hinders their ability to land honest work.

That’s why Kerik has become a staunch supporter of prison reform. “I want to make this clear, I’m no different of a law and order guy today than I was 20 years ago,” said Kerik. “Bad people who do bad things should go to prison.” It’s the people whose actions could be considered morally blameless or people who committed offenses that were minor in nature that shouldn’t be locked away. This applies to those who commit nonviolent drug offenses. “President Trump right now is looking at commuting sentences for people who were basically put in prison for life for first-time, nonviolent drug offenses.”

Kerik sits on a prison reform panel for the White House that makes recommendations for how to help people come out of prison better than they went in.  He’s spoken out in favor of the FIRST STEP Act, federal legislation that strengthens reentry programs to stop the revolving door nature of today’s prison system. The President himself has said he’d sign the bill if Congress got it to his desk, but the bill has yet to receive a vote in the Senate. Sources say it won’t happen until after the midterm elections, and Kerik is disappointed by that.

While America is a great nation, it has room to improve in the way of second chances. Due to collateral consequences associated with criminal convictions Kerik says, “The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.” You’re punished for life.

The FIRST STEP Act would at least put the tools needed to make the most of second chances into the hands of those leaving U.S. prisons. If that happens, maybe Americans can sleep a little better at night knowing that the threat of repeat offenders has been reduced.


KATIE GREER joined Right on Crime in April 2017 and currently serves as the Communications Manager.

Before joining Right on Crime, Greer most recently worked as a Communications Specialist for a statewide trade association. She came to Austin by way of lobbyist Bill Pewitt after successfully campaigning to elect Texas’ 48th Governor Greg Abbott. A 5th generation Texan, Greer took a detour to Mississippi where she earned a Bachelors in Communication Studies from Millsaps College. She came back to Texas as fast as she could.