Criminal Justice Reform, Booker, & Camden

Photo courtesy of April Saul, Freelance photographer.

Photo courtesy of April Saul, Freelance photographer.

A few weeks ago, as reported by the Courier Post, Sen. Cory Booker, Camden County Metro Police Chief J. Scott Thomson, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, and Pastor William Heard of Kaighn Ave. Baptist Church sat on a stage discussing criminal justice reform. For the most part, they seemed informed and aware of the mess the all levels of government created in response to an illegal drug market and drug war that started in the 1980s.

The openly unresolved issue of urban America, certainly Camden, is economics and jobs.  It doesn’t make much of a difference to talk about prison rates, crime, and reform directly unless it is accompanied with a rallying call to action.  There are too many leaders that are eloquent messengers, but can’t match the eloquence with action.

Camden’s member of Congress Representative Donald Norcross often says that the best social program is a job. Unlike, the government created criminal justice system, which is a concoction of executive enforcement, legislative branch created laws, and judicial interpretation by judges, hiring practices are largely up to the employer.  With the exception of discriminatory practices, a private company’s hiring decision cannot be directly impacted by regulation or new law. Companies can be enticed to hire with incentives, but never forced. The mayor or governor cannot inject employers with the most vulnerable and needy. The action it takes to get to sustainable employment with a living wage, is complex. Instead, elected leaders host job fairs and chip away at barriers, such as the “Ban the Box” initiative. Another thing that politicians do in the name of economic development and as documented on NJ Platform is offer tax incentives. Nationwide, this is a popular tactic used by governments to increase employment, but there is no evidence yet that this will be game changer, greatly increasing employment opportunities. They are really just corporate welfare.

Back to the event, the most compelling story that stuck was Sen. Booker comparing drug dealers he knew as a college student at Stanford University to the ones in Newark and Camden. The white, upper class, educated, young dealers in California were not investigated, prosecuted, or jailed as the black, poor, uneducated dealers in urban America were. And the customers were similar in many ways – peaceful people trying to get high for pleasure or to feed an addiction.

We have to do something about it. Sen. Booker sponsored a bill in the U.S. Senate. The REDEEM Act proposes several things: allowing an easier process to seal records, especially for juveniles; lifts lifetime ban on SNAP and TANF (aka Food Stamps) for most non-violent drug offenses; and improves the FBI background check system. Below, you see Sen. Booker discuss the details. It gives states with reformed practices more money for federally funded projects.

Sen. Cory Booker is a good senator. He represents New Jersey well on the national stage. People love to hear him speak. He brings hope and pride in ways that very few can. When was the last time Harry Reid or Steny Hoyer inspired someone through politics.  As a democrat, being in the minority party limits how much he can do. The reality of the American system of government is that federalism and separation of powers combined with gerrymandering and racist old school politicians means common sense, research based ideas too frequently die before they lived.

There is little hope that criminal justice reform will pass the Senate this year. There is actually a better chance that it will pass in the House of Representatives. Most prisons are run by states, not the federal government. Governors of fifty states and state lawmakers have the power to make many of the recommendations that Sen. Booker has suggested. New Jersey is actually considered a national leader with efforts that started under Gov. Jon Corzine’s administration and that continue under Gov. Christie. Significant changes were made to parole and bail reform. Nonetheless, we need action and for people to tell their elected officials that this is another system that needs change.

Note: The video below shows the process of how a bill, such as the REDEEM Act, get passed and sent to the President.