THE BLOG

A Time for Criminal Justice Reform

07/11/2014 04:54 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2014
Marcel Pelletier via Getty Images

High school dropout. U.S. Army Military Police Officer. Highly decorated undercover cop and narcotics detective. New York City Department of Correction Commissioner. Police Commissioner of the City of New York. United States Secretary of Homeland Security Nominee. Convicted Felon.

My life has been a series of highs and lows. But now I am embarking on the next chapter, and one I believe will define my legacy: Reformer.

Today I want to use my unique set of criminal justice experiences -- from both sides of the prison wall -- to help end the mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenders.

These antiquated criminal justice laws are hurting tens of thousands of men, women and children and costing the American public billions of dollars in taxpayer money. Think about it: there are 2.5 million people in prison today, about 70 percent of which are in for drug related crimes, and many are uneducated and many are illiterate.

The U.S. has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world and federal, state and local governments are spending almost $80 billion per year on jails and prisons. If we continue these failed policies, that number that will rise dramatically. It is unsustainable.

To be clear, I spent my career taking on violent criminals, murderers, gangs, and drug lords. These were bad individuals who did bad things. They were a danger to society, and they deserved to go to prison and stay there for a long time. Many deserve to die there.

In my own case, I made mistakes and I and my family have paid for them.

But when we deem low-level, non-violent offenders as felons, society is not giving them just a multi-year prison term. We are giving them a life sentence. These men and women are forever branded as felons -- preventing them from attaining steady jobs upon leaving prison and often forcing them back to a life of crime. In some states, their conviction prevents them from ever working for the local government or even working as a barber or a cosmetologist. It's wrong.

For decades, politicians used mandatory sentencing laws as a tool to burnish their "tough-on-crime" credentials. But putting non-violent offenders in prison for 10, 20, 30 years does not make someone "tough-on-crime". In fact, it makes them "stupid-on-crime." Even the courts and our prison leaders urge former offenders to obtain successful employment, but our laws prevent felons from getting jobs.

It shows that the system would rather lock non-violent offenders up and throw away the key rather than doing the right thing -- reforming our criminal justice system and giving Americans a chance to contribute again.

We have an opportunity right now to bring together leaders from across the political spectrum and finally reform our criminal justice system. This is no longer a right-left issue. Congress recently stepped up to find a solution, even holding a hearing on the collateral damage created by these failed policies.

They have been joined by political leaders ranging from President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to U.S. Senators Rand Paul and Cory Booker, and Texas Governor Rick Perry. All of them have stepped forward, urging that we reform our system.

If leaders in Washington, a place known for partisan-divides and general dysfunction, can agree we need to fix our system, surely we can find a solution and right these wrongs.

Together, we can change the mentality surrounding non-violent crimes and change the mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In doing so, we will allow more Americans to find new roles and write a new chapter in their lives.