Prison reform continues to be a hotbutton topic, particularly within the Black community. As the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Norman L. Reimer has made it his personal mission to see real, groundbreaking reform enacted. He discussed as much during a recent sit down with rolling out.
Why is criminal justice reform important to our economy today?
You can’t have a healthy society when you’ve disadvantaged a significant portion of today’s society. We now have in this country something like 70 million people who have criminal records. Those are people who because of the way our criminal justice system has been set up are unable to get jobs, often unable to get housing, and this is not good for the economy, the soul of the country, and not good for the soul of justice.
Why is it important to remove the checkbox on the job application? Don’t employers have the right to know if a person has been to prison?
You know, the problem with the box and having to disclose the fact that you have a criminal record in order to qualify to get an interview is a symptom of a much larger problem. It’s a national obsession with stigmatizing people who have been through the criminal justice system, and it’s fundamentally wrong. It’s wrong for many, many reasons because people change, grow-up and mature. Disproportionate numbers of these people are poor, they’re minorities and they’re youth … and they shouldn’t be forced to be carrying these barriers around with them for the rest of their lives. It’s also important to understand what the symbol of that box is: it’s saying without even getting to know you, without interviewing you and without knowing your life story [that] we are putting you aside. I salute Koch [Industries] for what they’ve done; I’m proud of my own organization for what we’ve done. We brought in a human resources consultant for a relatively small organization and their standard form had the box on it and I said, “No, we are not going to do that.” I now have people on my staff who have criminal histories, and I am proud to employ them. They are fabulous employees and they deserve the same shot as anybody else.
How will prison reform change the African American community?
Reflecting back over the last four decades since we’ve been on this so-called law and order kick in this country, which has given us the largest prison population in the world, I think we have to be candid and recognize that just as we began to deal with the elimination of segregation, we developed a system in our criminal justice system that essentially supplanted it. Reforming our criminal justice system is really the social justice issue of our time, and I frankly don’t believe that we as a society can move forward until we get beyond this and recognize that it’s not just the two million people that we have in prison … it’s the effect that it has on families, communities and generations, and that’s what we have to stop. At some point, if we do that, we will really be a United States of America.
What questions and what actions should people be taking today in requesting of their public officials in this process and fight?
I think the community bears a responsibility for how we got into this mess and I think the community is going to have to be the ones who stand up and change it. The elected officials have got to hear from the people that are out there voting that they care about these issues and they want to see sentencing reform, and that they want to see indigent defense services funded. That’s one of the biggest issues we have in this country, right on the front end of the system when the most important decisions are made about a case. Do you have a lawyer that’s effective, that has adequate resources? In most states, the answer to that is no, and on the back end of the system people have to start asking their legislators, “Why are you enacting all of these disabilities? Why are you taking away their right to vote? Why are you taking away their right to have a gun if [their case has] no connection to violence? Why are you taking away their right to have a job, or right to housing or student loans?” People have to start asking those questions and demand answers.