Written by Jessica Humphrey-Cintineo
“I’ve served this country in ways that are unparalleled, and it didn’t make any difference.”
These are the words of Bernard Kerik, New York City’s police commissioner during the events of 9/11.
Kerik went from being an American hero to an inmate. Last year, inmate #84888-054 walked out of a Cumberland, Md. federal prison after serving three years and 11 days.
His resume is a long and storied one. Prior to leading the NYPD through rescue and recovery efforts after 9/11, Kerik served in the U.S. Army Military Police Corps. He also was the security chief of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a driver and bodyguard to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and the commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections. The list goes on and on.
“I worked for this country for 35 years,” said Kerik, 59. “I’ve done heroics on top of heroics.”
Despite his long list of accomplishments, the Franklin Lakes resident once known as “America’s Cop” fell from grace. He was the Bush administration’s choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security in 2004, but soon withdrew his consideration for the nomination after he revealed that he employed an undocumented worker as a nanny and housekeeper. From that point on, things got worse for Kerik. He pleaded guilty to ethics violations in 2006, and in 2007 he was indicted by a federal grand jury. In 2009, he pleaded guilty to felony charges that included tax fraud and lying to White House officials. For that, Kerik was sentenced to prison.
“No one in the history of this country with my background or success in police enforcement has been on the other side,” said Kerik. “No one has the perspective that I have right now in getting to see the system from the inside out.”
According to Kerik, the system is broken. He saw flaws in our criminal justice system and he wants to change them.
Kerik is the author of “The Lost Son: A Life in Pursuit of Justice,” and “In the Line of Duty: A Tribute to New York’s Finest and Bravest.” His third book, “From Jailer to Jailed: My Journey from Correction and Police Commissioner to Inmate #84888-054” will be released in March 2015.
Kerik said that his new book is in some ways a follow up to “The Lost Son,” his bestselling memoir that was released in November 2001.
“It’s from the time Bush comes to Ground Zero right until the time I walk out of prison,” he said.
Having been on both sides of the criminal justice system, Kerik uses his unique perspective to argue for reform. He also covers other topics, such as the persisting terrorism threats America faces from ISIS and Al Qaeda.
“At the end of the day, the system economically is unsustainable,” he said. “At the rate we are going, we’re just going to put everyone in prison.”
Currently, according to Kerik, there are 45,000 collateral consequences across the 50 states within state and federal guidelines. For most of those consequences, the punishments don’t fit the crime.
For example, a commercial fisherman can be put in prison if he catches too many fish. In addition, a person who sells a whale’s tooth on eBay can become a convicted felon and a 24-year-old man that enhances his income on a mortgage application can be charged with mortgage fraud.
“We put people in prison for things I didn’t even know you could put people in prison for,” Kerik said.
Then, once in prison, those first-time offenders learn how to cheat and steal among other things, according to Kerik.
“That’s what we make them do. Then we let them go back home after we have turned them into a monster,” he said. “Then we—society—want to know why the return rate [to prison] is so high.”
Once labeled a felon, most individuals cannot get a job, buy a car, rent an apartment, obtain a driver’s license or vote. Kerik, however, will get his right to vote back three years after he finishes his probation.
“There’s a cost to a conviction,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the sentence is—it doesn’t make any difference. The consequences are life-long. They are eternal. They never end.”
As for his own felony label, Kerik said it’s no longer about him anymore.
“We are destroying men and women unnecessarily,” said Kerik, who will no longer be able to carry or have access to a firearm after serving 35 years in law enforcement.
Kerik doesn’t blame the American public for their lack of outrage. You can only truly understand the necessity for criminal justice reform if you’ve been on both sides as the jailer and the jailed, he said.
Now, his mission is to bring this problem to the forefront of the public discussion while trying to make Americans understand why change is needed. He wants our political leaders to do their jobs.
Kerik frequently travels to meet with members of the House of Representatives and Senate to highlight flaws in the system and asks them to consider revisions in the laws and sentencing guidelines, some of which are highlighted in his book. He’s currently in the process of creating a national coalition to address criminal justice reform.
He travels to speak with both local and national groups, and students at college campuses. Recently, he spoke at the University of Vermont, the University of Massachusetts, and Penn State University—in one week.
“I’m doing everything in my power to educate the public,” he said, “because no one in this country should believe it can’t happen to you.”
Kerik mentioned Harvey A. Silverglate’s “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent,” as an example. Kerik said each person commits at least three felonies a day. If and when a prosecutor targets them, they have to worry.
“It’s imperative that our younger generation understands this,” Kerik said. “One, they can be impacted by it and two, they are the future of this country. They should know what they are walking into.”
In addition to his speaking engagements and consulting work, Kerik, a black belt in karate, stays active by exercising. He is also working on a TV series, and spends a great deal of time with his wife Hala and two daughters Celine, 14, and Angelina, 12. He also has a son who is a police officer in Newark and an older daughter who is married and lives in Virginia.
Kerik has given a lot to this country, but his work is nowhere near complete. His perspective is different, and his mission is clear. Reforming this broken system is his primary objective right now.
“It’s so damn important to this country, and I just don’t think people know how important.”