I Was Once Incarcerated for a Non-Violent Drug Offense. Let’s Do Lunch, Kamala Harris.

A formerly incarcerated writer discusses the criminal justice reform issues he'd like to raise with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Graphic via Denzel Boyd for COURIER

By Matthew J. Parker

November 25, 2020

If I were ever given the opportunity to sit down with the future vice president, I’d like to have a meaningful conversation about criminal justice reform.

It’s been five years since I invited, via the pages of The Baltimore Sun, newly minted Attorney General Loretta Lynch to have lunch with an ex-con—namely, me. The invite was in essence calling the Obama administration to task for keeping both felons and ex-felons in a Jim Crow-like limbo. Meanwhile, the pope had at the time made a point of lunching with prisoners and occasionally washing their feet.

Today, I’m extending this same lunch invitation to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, but not for the same reasons. Or not exactly. For decades, politicians have kept their distance from ex-cons. But if meaningful justice reform is ever to take place, then that distance must be lessened, and what better way to do it than over lunch? Harris’ history as a prosecutor has made her that much closer to convicted felons.

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Harris has gotten a sense of felon distancing by dint of the criticism she’s received for sending scores to prison—many of them, like myself, nonviolent drug offenders. But following the letter of the law doesn’t mean she wrote it, and I can attest that many of the men I was locked up with needed to be there, which proves another point: Prosecutors, like police, are a necessity, even if they do wield too much power. Because of absolute immunity, prosecutorial misconduct is always just that even when it’s a crime. It’s something I believe Joe Biden and Harris need to confront with the same zeal currently directed toward reforming our police. Nor should the success of prosecutors be based on conviction rates. Harris was trapped by this injudicious doctrine same as every prosecutor. Given this, the far left might consider cutting her some slack.  

If the vice president-elect were to accept my invitation for lunch, I also intend to bring up this idiotic war on drugs, which, if police and justice reform are ever to be a reality, must be addressed. That metaphorical war validates the militarization of our police as well as the erosion of our civil rights, and is also directly responsible for the killings of Breonna Taylor and God knows how many others. Defunding the drug war, which can start with decriminalization, could and by all means should reallocate money to our schools and after-school programs, community policing, and mental health services. Miami, for example, has a fantastic mental health diversion program that’s keeping thousands from reoffending, and at a fraction of the cost of incarceration. 

I tend to agree with the policing reform platform put forth by the Biden ticket; however, that money for police needs to be increased in order to train, screen, and pay them better. The latter is crucial. A good salary and the vetting process that comes with it will attract top-notch candidates, who in their turn as professionals will draw far fewer weapons. And lawsuits. Defunding the police, therefore, is just an unfortunate euphemism for comprehensive justice reform.

RELATED: The Movement for Black Lives Wants to Radically Reimagine Policing. Here’s How.

I’ll also ask our future vice president if and when ex-cons will be let out of limbo. Many of us (5 million plus, myself included) have zero representation in Congress and only a handful of advocates. There are no ex-cons serving in the House or Senate; no tenured ex-cons in our universities (aside from a few radical leftists from the 1960s and 1970s) or K-12 schools; no ex-cons anchoring local or national television; no ex-con columnists writing for major newspapers; neither pundits nor police nor probation or parole officers have ever served a day in jail, even if most of them have been high on one substance or another.

Police aren’t kicking down uptown doors. There are no broken windows that need mending in Beverly Hills. Wealth, even modest wealth, provides cover for all manner of vice crimes, suggesting they’re not really crimes at all. Recall Alabama’s “moral turpitude” laws that disenfranchised thousands during Jim Crow. Our justice system today operates under the same system. They’ve simply changed the nomenclature.

There’s sure to be a bit of camaraderie between the Veep and I. She’s been through an intense vetting process, giving her a taste of what it’s like to be an ex-con.

There’s sure to be a bit of camaraderie between the Veep and I. She’s been through an intense vetting process, giving her a taste of what it’s like to be an ex-con. People who are formerly incarcerated are vetted constantly, of course, by most we come in contact with. Ex-cons are the sound blocks of America, those rounded slivers of wood judges pound their gavels onto in order to avoid marring cultured veneers. 

Various remedies have been suggested to eliminate this codified ostracism, one of which is “banning the box” on job applications. The idea behind the ban the box movement is that ex-cons should be allowed to initially avoid telling prospective employers that we are convicted felons—to, in effect, retreat behind a wall of shame. The scheme suggests that hiding the fact of who and what we are will give us an advantage—kind of like asking a Black person to pretend that she or he is white in order to sidestep systemic racism.

It’s thus a fair question to ask where VP Harris stands on these issues. Twenty million ex-cons would like to know, as would their families, friends, and a goodly number of our fellow Americans.

Loretta Lynch, of course, never took me up on my offer, and I expect the same of Kamala Harris. It should be noted, however, that two months after I invited Lynch to lunch, President Obama visited a federal prison—the first sitting president to do so. He neither dined with those incarcerated nor washed their feet, but baby steps, baby steps, baby steps.

READ MORE: I Was Once Incarcerated and Now Can’t Vote. But I Still Appreciate the US Constitution.


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