Racial Equity Sketches: #2, Criminal Justice
Racial Equity Sketches
(Original Content by the Commission on Economic Inclusion)
#2: The Interview
“The true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” – Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and social justice activist
A door. And behind it, a new beginning.
Khyree’s mind flooded with positive thoughts as he waited in the hallway for his interview. To quiet his nerves, he focused on the granite name plate next to the dark mahogany door in front of him.
Judith Stine, Managing Partner.
Khyree imagined the word “Partner” next to his name one day. The thought gave him the confidence he needed in the moments before he heard a voice saying, “Please come in.”
“Ms. Stine, it’s an absolute pleasure to—”
“Please, Khyree, call me Judy! It’s a pleasure to meet you. I was seriously impressed by your cover letter.”
“Oh, thank you. It was very sincere.”
“I could tell. I’ve never seen a 3-page cover letter—especially not for a clerical assistant position! It’s clear that you’re motivated and enthusiastic. To succeed here, though, you’ve got to be good at putting out fires. It’s a fast-paced, high-pressure environment. Can you tell me about a time you were in a high-pressure situation, and how you handled it?”
Khyree gave a polite smile and cleared his throat. He had practiced the answer several times, but his mind still couldn’t help but wander to that day seven years ago, the sound of his buddy Roger’s voice…
“Khy, you haven’t been drinking right? Can you do me the biggest favor?” Roger explained to Khyree how his mother would get upset if his car wasn’t in the driveway by the morning.
He agreed to help. Life is Good had just dropped some weeks ago, and a friend at the party gave him a tape. The 20-minute drive to Roger’s house was the perfect opportunity to listen.
Two songs in, Khyree noticed the gas was nearly empty. He pulled over at the closest gas station. He hadn’t been sitting for long before he heard noises coming from the car parked at the pump next to him. He lowered the volume. He looked over. His heart dropped.
“Please, please don’t hurt me,” a woman wailed in the passenger’s seat, as the man next to her gripped her neck. Sweat formed at Khyree’s temple as he contemplated what to do.
“Great question, Judy. To be honest, I think high-pressure environments are precisely where I thrive. In my first job on the floor of Procurus Manufacturing, I learned valuable skills in time management and conflict resolution…”
Khyree answered the first question exactly as rehearsed.
Judy looked pleased and jotted some notes. “Seems like you have a determined work ethic. Is there someone who inspires you to be that way? A role model?”
“Let me go, let me go…” the woman pleaded. The man did, but only to get out of the car. He walked over to her side and jerked her out. Khyree flinched as the man screamed in her face and pushed her head violently onto the hood of car. The woman faced Khyree now, looking directly into his eyes.
Khyree thought of his mother. The hardest-working, strongest person on the planet, who raised him and his sisters with the most graceful love he’d ever known. The day he saw Wallace lay his hands on her was the worst day of his life. She escaped that horrible relationship, but the few weeks that Wallace was home, Khyree promised himself he wouldn’t let anyone hurt his mother, or any other woman, ever again.
He got out of the car. He walked over. He punched the man once. Twice. Over and over and over, until the man’s screams were drowned out by sirens.
Khyree pushed the memory out of his head, responding to Judy’s role model question with the one he had practiced with his job coach.
Judy was enthusiastic at the answer. “What a coincidence…my high school Government teacher was one of my biggest sources of inspiration as well. So Khyree, from your cover letter, I sense you’re very passionate about justice. Tell me where that came from.”
“I’m afraid we’re looking at something like six to eight years here, Mr. Higgins. The victim is still in critical condition. You mentioned to the cops that you were defending his girlfriend against him, but his girlfriend refuses to verify this. And the security cameras in the area didn’t capture the scene. To make matters worse, a significant amount of marijuana was found in the vehicle you were driving. We know the vehicle isn’t in your name, but you’d still be charged with possession. You also resisted arrest. There are a number of charges here. Unfortunately, your chances don’t look so great if you decide to go to trial.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Khyree whispered under his breath. He was tired and hungry and had been held in jail for nearly three days before meeting with the prosecutor.
“According to the law, you did, Mr. Higgins. But you seem like a good person. I can work things out with you here. If you plead guilty, we can drop some charges, reduce the sentence. You could even have an early release. If you decide on a trial, you might have to spend months here waiting. Your family has indicated they’re unable to make bail. What do you think, Mr. Higgins?”
“I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Mr. Higgins, I’m telling you because I know how this goes. A jury won’t agree with you.”
Judy’s eyes lit up as Khyree explained the papers he wrote for his classes at the local community college. “It’s great to hear that your interest in justice is rooted in so much research and reading. Any legal scholar you’ d consider your favorite?”
“You better read this, son. But don’t let anybody catch you reading it.” Mike Sr. handed Khyree a copy of Michelle Alexander’s book as they were walking back from their shift at the prison notebook factory.
Mike Sr. had earned a reputation as Lawyer Mike, imparting legal advice to anyone who would listen. He was nine years into his 20-year sentence, spending nearly every day reading and writing in notebooks he would bring back to his cell from the factory. Khyree enjoyed talking to Lawyer Mike, who struck him as the most scholarly and intelligent man he’d met. It was through conversations with Lawyer Mike that Khyree became committed to learning about the American legal system. At the end of his two-year sentence, Khyree would do everything he could to follow a career pathway in line with his newfound calling.
This interview was that chance, and as Khyree finished responding to Judy’s last question, he felt strangely calm. He had given this his absolute best shot.
“Khyree, I’ve been absolutely delighted by the opportunity to talk with you today. Based on what you’ve shared, it seems like you are exactly what we’re looking for.”
Khyree smiled too. “That’s great to hear. Does this mean I’ve got the job?”
“Almost. The only thing left to do is draw up the official paperwork, which you’ll need to sign. Oh, right. And there’s also a simple criminal background check. We’ll send you the link to that in our follow-up email. Anyone that works to protect the law has to have followed it, right?”
Judy spoke with a faint chuckle. Little did she know, across from her sat a man about to be denied a second chance, yet again.
In this story, we witness how Khyree, a promising and motivated candidate for a clerical assistant position at Judy’s firm, is restricted from the opportunity due to his criminal record. Unfortunately, Khyree’s predicament is not unique. In Ohio, one in 11 adults lives with a felony conviction (nearly 1 million people), and one in three has a criminal record of some kind, according to a recent report by Policy Matters Ohio.
Formerly incarcerated individuals face a host of legal restrictions upon reentering society. The Ohio Justice and Policy Center has identified 1,100 such restrictions, known as collateral sanctions, in the Ohio Revised Code. These include access to government programs such as food stamps, public housing, life insurance, and student loans. Roughly 850 of the restrictions have direct or indirect consequences on employment opportunities. Policy Matters Ohio also reveals that a quarter of jobs statewide are impacted by these collateral sanctions. This means, one out of every four jobs are virtually unavailable to those with a criminal background. Often, these jobs are found in higher-paying, fast-growing industries, such as healthcare and the public sector.
The economic impact of these employment barriers is enormous. In 2017 alone, they cost individuals an estimated $3.4 billion in foregone wages. In response to this research by Policy Matters, the Fund for our Economic Future highlighted the urgency of letting people “rejoin our economy when they get out. When we don’t, firms lose earning potential, the state economy is smaller, and communities are left less safe.” Indeed, extensive collateral sanctions can create a precarious employment environment that leaves reentering citizens with few options, increasing the likelihood that they will re-offend (recidivism).
Recent Ohio efforts, like the ban-the-box campaign for public sector jobs (which removes the question of criminal records from the initial hiring screen) and the (under-utilized) 2012 Certificates of Qualification for Employment (CQE) law, address these issues. Industry-specific initiatives have also emerged, such as the Training Assessment Placement Project. TAPP, as it’s referred, encourages manufacturing employers to train and hire ex-offenders while offering tax credits and wage reimbursements from the state. Various local organizations, such as North Star and Towards Employment, offer numerous services and training programs to prepare individuals for job opportunities after they have finished serving their time. Efforts like these create viable career pathways for reentering citizens, while simultaneously closing the talent shortage many employers face. Research even suggests that employees with a criminal background are more reliable—statistically, they have longer tenures and are less likely to voluntarily terminate employment.
Though post-incarceration measures are critical to pursue, there is also conversation to be had about the drastically rising rates of arrests and convictions. From 1970 to 2014, the prison population in America increased roughly 650%. Today, America contains 5% of the world’s population, yet 25% of the world’s prison population.
In Ohio, the number of those incarcerated has increased three-fold since 1980, without a corresponding increase in population or crime. Currently, the state spends roughly $1.3 billion to keep 50,000 individuals in prison. Many of these convictions are the result of low-level drug offenses; in 2014, over 25% of prison sentences were for drug-related crimes. This past November, Ohio Issue 1, a bipartisan proposal aimed at reducing the number of individuals in state prisons for low-level crimes such as drug possession, was introduced on the midterm election ballot. The Ohio legislature is now considering Senate Bill 3 that includes a number of the ideas from Ohio Issue 1.
Another key component of the issue is the number of prisoners who have never gone through a trial for their conviction. Just like in Khyree’s case, the vast majority of sentences are settled through a plea bargain – a deal in which some charges are dropped or sentences are reduced if a convicted individual agrees to plead guilty. At the federal level, only about 3% of criminal convictions are reached through a trial. In Ohio, that number is 2.4%. This reality often boils down to time and resources: there are not enough prosecutors and judges for every single case to go to trial. Plea bargaining, therefore, is the bread and butter of the criminal justice system. Consequently, even when individuals are innocent, they face incentives to plead guilty—such as to avoid the possibility of a harsher sentence, save expenses on hiring an attorney, and escape a long wait in jail, where conditions can be notoriously inhumane.
We’ve touched on several, but not all, aspects of the criminal justice system here. It is important to note that many realities of criminalization disproportionately affect communities of color. The Bureau of Justice reports that the lifetime likelihood for imprisonment is one in 17 for white men, and one in three for black men. In 2017, an estimated 405,800 black Ohioans had a felony conviction. That represents a quarter of black residents in the state. Furthermore, though black residents only comprise 12% of the state population, they make up 43% of Ohio’s prison population.
When thinking about Khyree’s story, it is essential to recognize that even if Judy is not exhibiting racial bias in her hiring process, the decision is still being impacted by larger systems that have, historically and still today, been driven to produce disparate outcomes by race.
Given all of this, we must ask ourselves a few necessary questions. What does justice in this country, state, and region look like now? What do we want it to look like? And how do we address that gap?
Recommended Further Reading, Viewing, & Listening:
2. Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard Law graduate and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. A biographic memoir film based on Stevenson is being produced by Warner Bros. and is scheduled to be released in January 2020.
3. 13th, a documentary on mass incarceration in the United States. Directed by Ava DuVernay, and available on Netflix.
4. Serial, an investigative journalism podcast produced by This American Life. The 3rd Season (2018) explores the court system in Cleveland.
5. The Going Home to Stay booklet by the Cuyahoga County Office of Reentry, which provides resources and tips for reentering citizens.
This sketch is featured as a part of Freshwater’s Cle Means We Series. Read their Reentry Week article here.
 13th. (2016). [video] Directed by A. DuVernay. Oakland, USA: Kandoo Films.
 13th. (2016). [video] Directed by A. DuVernay. Oakland, USA: Kandoo Films.