Welcome Dr. James!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Last week New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio took what is being hailed as a “proactive” approach to addressing the cities budgetary deficit.  He states:

“Keeping people out of our jails saves money. We can help to make people who might not have been law-abiding citizens into law-abiding citizens. That also saves money. We can keep folks who would have been homeless from going into our shelter system. That saves money.”

We certainly agree here at the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy (DRCPP) with the Mayor, but we also believe that keeping people out of prison saves a lot more than money. Please allow me to make a formal introduction:

My name is Dr. Kirk Anthony James. I am the new Senior Director of Policy at the Fortune Society. I have woken up for the past few years knowing that I would receive a DRCCP email personally addressed to me from Glenn Martin, Joanne Page, and the Fortune Society. It is an email that I would often forward to my students at the University of Pennsylvania where I have worked for the past three years, while simultaneously completing my Doctorate degree. So it is with great pleasure that I write this email to introduce myself as the new Senior Director of DRCCP. I would also like to share a part of my story in helping us to become better acquainted in our mutual struggle to enact effective and humane policy in and around matters of criminal justice.

Twenty years ago I began serving a life sentence under New York’s draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws. I was arrested at 18 years old with no prior criminal history. I was a freshman at Nassau Community College where I was studying criminal justice with a concentration in juvenile delinquency. I was thus familiar with the criminal justice system and immensely optimistic that the judge would see the incongruities in my case and set me free. My optimism would wane with each trip from Rikers Island to the criminal court house on Queens Boulevard that fateful summer of 1994. The Judge not only did not want to hear my story, but my attorney had begun pressuring me to take a plea deal. When arrested, I was initially offered a sentence of forty years to life. My attorney informed me that the court was now willing to have leniency on me, they were now offering me a plea of seven years to life – if I copped to criminal possession of a controlled substance in the second. I pleaded with my lawyer that I was “entrapped” – a term that I had learned while frequenting the legal library on Rikers Island. I had no bail, and my lawyer never came to see me, or answered my allotted weekly legal phone call. I had taken the time to learn the language and customs of a system that was now in control of my life. I would eventually be coaxed into taking the plea like numerous young men and women without the benefit of adequate legal counsel. I would spend the next nine years in Upstate New York as a student in the school of “hard knocks”. From Coxsackie to Greene, From Greene to Attica, in all these facilities I saw the same thing – countless men, young and old, trapped in a system that never took the time to hear their story, further marginalizing the marginalized. It is with this vision that I begin as the Senior Director of DRCCP. My passion is without a doubt social justice for all people irrespective to class, race or creed – a passion that stems from my own contact with the criminal justice system, and continues today as the plague of mass incarceration, and social injustice continues to proliferate largely unabated.

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Glenn Martin has been a dear friend and mentor since we met while attending college in 1999. I wish it was a story of attending New York University or Hunter College, but as with many young Black men, it was neither. I met Glenn while attending college at Wyoming Correctional Facility. Accessing education in prison changed my life, and I am sure Glenn would attest to it as well. It is without a doubt this education (formal and informal) that has made Glenn such an amazing figure in the fight for a more just response to crime. I aim to bring the same passion, tireless dedication, and commitment that Glenn has in helping to make DRCCP, and The Fortune Society one of the premier organizations for not only policy, but also direct services for people impacted by the various facets of the criminal justice system.

So Mr. Mayor, while keeping people out of prison saves money, it also saves lives, families and communities. DRCCP looks forward to working with YOU in bringing a more holistic/human lens in our approach to crime and punishment.



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