Former New York police Commissioner Bernie Kerik handed "Today" show host Matt Lauer a nickel. Kerik knows a few things about money and crime. After President George W. Bush nominated him to be homeland security chief, the 9/11 hero lied to federal investigators. Instead of joining the Bush Cabinet, Kerik pleaded guilty to two counts of tax fraud and six counts of making false statements. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
Free after three years in a minimum-security facility, Kerik went on "Today" to discuss not the injustice of his conviction but the injustice of federal mandatory minimum sentences that can put first-time nonviolent offenders away for decades, even life.
"I had no idea that for 5 grams of cocaine, which is what that nickel weighs, 5 grams, you could be sentenced to 10 years in prison," quoth Kerik.
Clearly, Kerik is not a details guy. He got everything in that example wrong except the weight of a nickel. When Kerik pleaded guilty, first-time nonviolent offenders found guilty of possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine in federal court faced a mandatory five years. The same mandatory minimum applied for 100 grams of powdered cocaine. In 2010, Congress changed the law so that 28 grams of crack invite a five-year mandatory minimum. But even if wrong on the details, he's right on the big picture.
As a cop and then commissioner, Kerik said, he was involved in putting some "really bad people" -- violent bad guys -- away for decades, even life, for breaking state law. Still, he was stunned to find himself in federal prison, "housed with men that were doing those same sentences that were there for first-time nonviolent drug offenses." He continued: "I didn't know that could happen. I didn't know that you could be sentenced to 25 years to life for a first-time nonviolent drug conviction."
Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation observed that it's not unusual for white-collar criminals to emerge from federal prison enraged at not their own situation but the warehousing of nonviolent drug offenders. "It is the massive scale of this that is so moving to people."
In a speech to the American Bar Association in August, Attorney General Eric Holder said, "Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason." Yet the Obama administration has failed to lead the way in reforming federal sentencing.