Convicted of false statements and tax charges relating to my children's nanny and apartment renovations, I was sentenced to four years in federal prison, serving just over three years. I learned that the deprivation of freedom is far more profound that one can imagine, and that going to prison is like dying with your eyes open. A horrific experience for any American citizen.
Whether it is the incarceration of young blacks sentenced to draconian sentences for low level, first-time, nonviolent drug offenses, or white-collar, first-time offenders sentenced to tens of years — and even life — in prison, one thing is for sure: We are creating a permanent American underclass of society that is costing the American taxpayers billions of dollars over the reported cost of incarceration.
And, considering that the United States incarcerates more citizens per capita than any country in the world, you have to ask yourself: At what cost?
I believe in law and order and I believe in the need to keep society safe from predators, murderers, rapists, child molesters, and those involved and engaged in violent crime. But, when American jails and prisons around the country are primarily filled with nonviolent and many first-time offenders, it's time for change.
The law-and-order conservatives on the right say that there must be accountability and prison is the answer … but I would say that there can be accountability without prison as the principal punishment in many of these first-time, nonviolent cases.
The reality is that a felony conviction of any type is a life sentence of collateral costs that includes the permanent loss of civil and constitutional rights.
No American citizen should permanently lose his or her God-given civil and constitutional rights except in the most extreme cases, but we treat every convicted felon the same.
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The loss of civil and constitutional rights are the same for a murderer or rapist, as it is for a young man that sells a whale's tooth on eBay. The loss of constitutional and civil rights are the same for a child molester and a young man that enhanced his income on a mortgage application to buy his first home with his new bride.
For a country that promotes itself as one of second chances and liberty and freedom, a convicted felon's debt to society is never paid, which contradicts our founding fathers' premise that the punishment must fit the crime. A convicted felon's punishment, no matter what the crime or mistake, no matter what the sentence, is a life-long personal and professional annihilation, that becomes a permanent second-class citizen that is never made whole again.
It's time for America to stop destroying lives, professions, and children. It's time for a real national bipartisan movement to make our criminal-justice system what it is supposed to be.
There is no greater threat to a free and democratic nation than a government that fails to fight for, and defend its citizen's rights to liberty and freedom, as aggressively as it pursues justice, and the time for that fight, has never been more important.
Commentary by Bernard Kerik, the former commissioner of the New York Police Department and founder of the Kerik Group. He is also the author of "From Jailer to Jailed: My Journey From Correction and Police Commissioner to Inmate #84888-054" and "The Lost Son." Follow him on Twitter @BernardKerik.