[VIEWPOINT] An attorney’s reflection on criminal justice reform; Former RLG attorney Evan Bolick on reforming the criminal justice system

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By Evan Bolick | Rose Law Group Reporter

Roughly 13 years ago, I enrolled in a wrongful convictions course at my law school. I went in very skeptical of the very premise of the course. I generally believed that the justice system worked well, police were largely unbiased, and the rights of the accused were safeguarded consistently with the principles set forth in our Constitution. In other words, I went in with a steadfast belief that the law more or less provided justice for all.

I learned, in fact, that it did not.

It’s a humbling experience to admit when you’re wrong. But also a necessary one. No doctrine or preconceived notions should ever stand in the way of sobering statistics and irrefutable evidence.

My belief has also been shaped through my personal experiences. Two of my best friends have decade-old criminal records for non-violent crimes. Miraculously, they have since gone to college, built professional careers, and seek to live law-abiding lives. But to this day, they both are confronted by the specters of long-ago indiscretions. Their offenses appear on background checks. Rental housing applications are denied due to this history. It is more difficult for them to get new jobs or promotions due to their record. It pains me to see that despite making the effort we should all applaud to live the American Dream, they continue to be beaten down by their pasts. And neither of them face nearly the scrutiny of many black or brown people in our country.

This unjust criminal system was constructed and enabled by both parties. A deeply insightful  book – The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander – highlights the steps taken by both parties (intentional or otherwise) that led to mass incarceration that disproportionately impact communities of color. It’s a difficult but necessary read.

And while our criminal justice system hurts all of us. There can be no doubt that it disproportionately impacts minorities.

For over a decade, I advocated to my fellow colleagues for the need to reform our criminal justice system. The issues that have led to the strife are varied, but can be simply boiled down. First, law enforcement bodies have long been over-empowered (and courts have done very little to rein them in). Note that we can still support our first responders while demanding accountability from them. Second, there is an ever-expanding number of laws criminalizing non-violent activity that leads to far too many people flooding our jails and prisons. Finally as a society we impose open-ended punishment on offenders. We strip even minor offenders of the right to vote, make it incredibly difficult to find post-incarceration jobs and housing, and subject ex-convicts to long-term parole or registration on government lists that brand them as criminals long after their sentence ended and debt to society paid. We do not use our prison system to foster good. We do not teach our prisoners job skills or resume building. We do not use incarceration as an opportunity to further prisoners” education. Imagine if a ex-convict came out of jail with a new GED or college degree and marketable skills? All of society would benefit. Surely, we would benefit far more from that than from creating and locking up serial offenders.

What happened to George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and many others is wrong. It offends our Constitution, our national principles, and all of us. I mourn  them all. Their unjust deaths are the result of a system that all of us helped create and maintain for far too long.

But I am heartened that we may finally see system-wide reform that is impossible to achieve in times of prosperity. We realized a small level of reform when the FIRST STEP Act was passed through Congress. Many states have been more aggressive in repealing unnecessary criminal laws. Law enforcement departments throughout the country are voluntarily reaching out to engage with protestors and the disenfranchised. And now the entire country is focused on these issues. I am pleased to see the masses advocate for the abolishment of qualified immunity, reforming law enforcement policies and structures, and calling for bail reform. With so many voices crying out for change, I fervently believe it can be realized.

America frequently is, and should continue to strive to be, the country that sets the tone for equality and opportunity throughout the world. While there is unequivocally more work to be done to prevent more tragedies, I believe we can do it.

You don’t need to be a bleeding heart liberal to decry the injustices wrought by our criminal system. Indeed, that is a label that has never applied to me. Every American of any political stripe should support the concept of justice for all. We can do better. I believe we will do better.

So please do what you can to support the needed change our country so desperately needs. I, for one, will be donating to the North Carolina Innocence Project – with whom I worked in my UNC wrongful convictions class and which guided my much needed education and perspective. I hope, through all our efforts, that we can realize the promise of equality and prosperity that America embodies, particularly for our minority communities who have been denied this promise for far too long.

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