Thank you. It really is an honor to be here with the Constitution Project to share this award with Senator Leahy or to get an award the same night as Senator Leahy. Thank you Julie and Jenny for, for making this happen.
Martin Luther King wrote in the letter from Birmingham Jail about what an unjust law was. Martin Luther King wrote that it’s a code that a numerical majority passes on a minority, but does not make binding on themselves. For too long in this country, the law was overtly unjust based on the color of your skin. This time has, fortunately, passed and for the most part, we’ve abandoned injustice dejour. But I believe we still suffer injustice de facto. There still is injustice within the criminal justice system, intentional or unintentional, it still exists.
I don't think think this is a conscious effort. We’ve had some discussion of this. The FBI director recently talked about how we have to be very, very careful of racial, you know, insensitive or racially profiling people. I think that’s important. But when we see the disparities, I don't think the disparities are necessarily coming from an over-racism. Nevertheless though, there is a disproportionate impact. There’s something gone awry in the criminal justice system, when you look at those who are incarcerated.
I was always someone who was kind of doubtful about the war on drugs. But I became more aware of the racial implications of this, after I read Michelle Alexander’s Mass Incarceration The New Jim Crow, which is a profound indictment of our criminal justice system. Despite consistent evidence that white kids and black kids use drugs at about the same rate, three out of four kids in jail are black or brown for nonviolent drugs. I think that we missed the boat if we simply say oh, this is just racism. I think that more likely the ultimate source of this is that poor people tend to live close together. There’s more crime in cities and the police are there all of the time, and the police aren’t in the suburbs. So, it adds up day in and day out.
The answer (inaudible) sensitivity training. The answer isn't just more African-American police officers, although, it’s probably part of the answer. That’s not the ultimate answer. I think the ultimate answer is in understanding the war on drugs has gone to far. That we’ve treated the war on drugs, and we’ve treated addiction, and we’ve treated the problems that our kids have, as, as an incarceration issue and not an addiction or a health issue.
I think we need less incarceration of people of all races. The injustice is evident in our prisons I think largely fail away if we begin to dismantle the overzealousness of the war on drugs. As I’ve traveled the country, as I went to Ferguson, as I went to Chicago, Detroit, and all of our big cities, I’ve sensed an undercurrent of unease. It’s not just sort of the instances that have happened. It’s not the particular instances of a shooting, although, those haven't helped. But it’s that it’s day in day out.
It’s kinda like what Martin Luther King talked about with there being two Americas. One America where you feel that you can be treated and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is there for you, and everything’s gonna be fair and you have a chance, and other people who feel like they still have no chance.
In Ferguson, and many cities in Missouri, 30 percent of the revenue coming in is from tickets and fines. Who disproportionately gets these? Poor people. 21,000 people live in Ferguson and yet, there were 32,000 arrest warrants last year, mostly for petty fines. Child support, everybody thinks we got to pay child support, right? What if you’ve been in prison for three year and you’re getting out and you make $8 an hour and you owe $3,000. Should we put you back in prison 'cause you can't keep up with your child support. It all adds up but it adds up to an impossibility for some people and people are giving up.
George Will writes that in California there are 2,000 people who have committed no violent crime, no serious crime, and are serving 25 years to life. You may recall in California though, this year, they passed Proposition 47. They took some of the minor drug felonies and they made them misdemeanors. And, you know what happened? This was in November, four months later, they’re finding that they’re not longer mandated to release people. The federal judges have been saying overcrowded and you gotta push people out. Violent criminals were being let out. Everybody was being let out. In four months, they’re finding that violent criminals can serve their entire sentence because they’re not crowding the prisons with marijuana crimes. I think the incarceration binge is out of control and I think it’s time that we get together Republican, Democrat, and Independent, and it’s time we fix it.
To me, it’s about the faces and stories. Rolling Stone did a great expose of this not too long ago. Timothy Tyler was 23 years old. He’s a dead head. He was naked in the desert. I don't think all dead heads do that. But, here’s the thing, somebody could’ve set him straight in life. There could’ve been another choice. He went to prison for life. He’s 46 years old now. He’s been in jail for 23 years. He might be in jail for another 40 years. He made a mistake for goodness sakes, couldn’t we give him a second chance.
Now, this is one thing I wanna compliment the President on, he has gotten some people out of prison. I don't know the numbers. Surely, there could be more but he has commuted some sentences for people that have been desperately affected that are crack cocaine users that were in for 15 years when the corresponding white kid in college got six months or nothing. So, he has done some job to try to equalize this. But we need to change the laws. A while back, we changed it from 100 to one disparity to cocaine it’s still 18 to one. Let’s make it one to one. There’s no reason we can't fix that.
People are rotting in prison from these mandatory minimums. The federal judges, three-fourths of them, many of them the majority appointed by Republicans, everybody’s saying they don’t want mandatory minimums. It takes justice out of the equation. The judges need to be given back discretion. But I think justice will only occur when we repeal, once and for all, all mandatory minimums.
Now, I just wanna stipulate that the Washington Post and I don’t always agree. They’re not always my best friend but I’m here to pay a compliment to the Washington Post for doing a great job. And we will be, it will be a great disservice to the country if we lose our newspapers, you know, if the major newspapers that do investigative reporting. The, the reporting in the Washington Post on civil asset forfeiture is changing minds. It’s changing minds in Congress. And I can tell you, even in the last couple of months, we’re now talking about it, and I know Senator Leahy was there the other day in the judiciary talking about civil asset forfeiture.
But the stories are what get me, Cristo Cevallos has a home, a nice home in Philadelphia. His teenage son’s selling $40 worth of illegal drugs out of it. What do they do? They evict the family from the house. They barricade the house and take the house without a conviction. It’s insane. But too often, this is a grandma in the inner city, who is the only stabilizing force in the family, whose grandson’s selling marijuana out of the house and they take the house. We’ve gotta do something about this. To my mind, it is thoroughly un-American that the government could ever take your stuff, could ever take your property without a conviction. And I think we have to change it, the sooner the better.
Senator Leahy mentioned the collection of phone records. Millions of people’s phone records are being collected. To my mind, where the 4th Amendment says you need to name an individual, I don't know anybody named Mr. Verizon. I think your records, when held by a third party, and this has never been fully adjudicated, but when your, when your records are held by a third party and you have a privacy agreement with them, I think you do not give up your private property interest in your records and you still maintain an interest in those records.
One unapologetic senator, who I’ve had a few rounds with, says if you’re not talking to terrorists why are you worried. He goes on to say that he would sensor the mail if he could. Really? This senator goes on to say that when you’re an American citizen and they ask for a lawyer you just tell them to shut up. Really, have we stooped so low that that is our standard? Have we fallen so low that that is our standard? If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. It’s a long way from innocent until proven guilty. Our founding fathers would be mortified. I think justice will predominate when the accused is always afforded a lawyer, always afforded due process, and always afforded a trial.
The New Yorker also did an expose that affected me profoundly. Kalief Browder is a 16 year old kid, accused of a crime, sent to jail. For three years in Rikers with no trial, Republicans were great with the 2nd Amendment, but you know what, somebody’s gotta stand up for the 4th, the 5th, and the 6th, which says you get a speedy trial. He was kept in solitary confinement. Cory Booker and I have a bill that gets rid of a lot of the solitary confinement for kids and is gonna help us, I think, with trying to keep this from happening again.
The way I see it the Bill of Rights is for the least among us, for the least popular, for those who don’t dress and act like everyone else. The Bill of Rights is not so necessary for the prom queen. The Bill of Rights is not so necessary for the high school quarterback, although, we’ll give them that, too. But it’s for the least popular among us. The Bill of Rights is especially for the unpopular, for the persecuted, for the minority. But to me, a minority is not just the color of your skin, it could be the shade of your ideology. It could be the shade of your religious faith. What should motivate us all to protect and defend the system that finds justice and protects everyone, whether you’re rich or poor, black or white. Until then, I wanna be one of those who remains ever vigilant and ever wary of those who would trade liberty or justice for a false sense of security.
(INAUDIBLE) = Areas that could not be heard due to background noise, tape/phone line quality, muffled speaking, etc.