Why you should care
Because criminal justice reform has stalled. Will this be the start of a revival?
The spirit is alive at Canaan Baptist Church, where dancers give praise in resplendent orange-yellow-blue hues of traditional African dress, gospel singers quake with fervor, and laity clap and shake maracas. That joyous noise gives way to rapt silence as the Rev. Christopher Bullock takes to the lectern. “Beware, lest we forget God brought you out of Egypt and bondage,” he begins, taking his congregation through a particular view of civil rights history — from Frederick Douglass being sent to “whisper in the ear” of Abraham Lincoln to the arrival of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, among others. His refrain: When it comes to imprisonment, unlikely champions are par for the course.
Back in his office in the New Castle, Delaware, church, Bullock passes by photos of him convening with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and explicitly ties his sermon to the issues that recently rocked Delaware — criminal justice and prison safety. Just weeks before, inmates took over a building and killed a corrections officer at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, a 19-hour drama that revealed the overcrowding and understaffing in the state’s toughest prison. Frustrated with an investigation that Bullock argues is flawed because it’s led by two former state judges, the pastor has joined with the ACLU-Delaware and other members of the Delaware Coalition of Prison Reform and Justice to draft a letter requesting an outside assessment from an unlikely ally — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the White House. “President Trump has a great opportunity to speak on this issue,” Bullock says, “because nobody expects him to do it.”
The Delaware example comes at a time when the future of justice is up for grabs. On one side, there’s been a push in states as red as Louisiana and as blue as Maryland to ease punishment and focus on rehabilitation. At one point, cost-cutting, life-changing federal legislation seemed so inevitable that, in late 2015, Utah Sen. Mike Lee told OZY a bill would happen within a few months.
But bipartisan consensus crumbled under pressure. And, after Trump campaigned and won on a tough-on-crime platform, many experts believe enforcement will become more stringent, not less. Trump selected Sessions as his top arbiter of justice, a man who has (contentiously) suggested violent crime is significantly up since its height in the ’90s. With Delaware’s recent tragic but galvanizing event, the state either could become a case study in how to deal with criminal justice and prison reform — or a cautionary tale. “Delaware, being a small state, can be a national voice in this conversation,” Bullock argues, “if we can get it right.”
We as conservatives have to say, ‘Let’s have the facilities we need for public safety — but not one more.’
Marc Levin, Texas Public Policy Foundation
If that happens, it would be an unlikely turnaround for a three-county state with a spotty penal record. Four of the past five decades have included at least one hostage crisis in a Delaware prison. In a 2006 investigation similar to the one Sessions could lead today, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice under George W. Bush found “substantial civil rights violations” after inmates complained of poor treatment for cancer, meningitis and other diseases. The feds settled with the state, which agreed to improve conditions, but problems persisted. A truly independent investigation, with follow-through, could yield results, says ACLU-Delaware director Kathleen MacRae, but size is a problem. There are “no district attorneys, county jails, no localized system.” MacRae adds: “It’s the politicians at the top … who have the most to lose when creating reform, whereas in local county systems, you could have progressive police chiefs or county jail attendants.”
Still, the Delaware episode seems ripped from a Trump campaign speech, where the brash presidential contender often described a dangerous America. The First State may capitalize on that narrative to attract national attention. By limiting prison sentences for nonviolent criminals, states like Texas reduced costs by $3 billion, says Marc Levin with Right on Crime at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Georgia was able to add services while cutting its prison population by 10 percent, saving $264 million. That efficiency freed the state to pump $17 million into anti-recidivism programs while enlisting faith-based organizations to enhance mentorship services for remaining inmates. “We as conservatives have to say, ‘Let’s have the facilities we need for public safety — but not one more,’” Levin said at a recent panel on the subject.
— Misty Michael (@MistyDMichael) February 2, 2017
Looking to Europe for answers, Oregon, South Dakota and Kentucky took part in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York. The program makes data-driven recommendations based on success stories such as Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. Delaware participated in 2011, and the following year implemented some of the recommended reforms, which mostly gave judges increased flexibility with sentencing. The changes also encouraged more interactions with community groups, including churches such as Bullock’s, and allowed prisoners to reduce time served (up to 60 days per year) by completing anti-recidivism programs. Since the killing at Vaughn Correctional Center in February, newly elected Democrat Gov. John Carney Jr. has promised to improve prison safety.
Delaware has made its move by requesting the federal investigation, and now it’s waiting for Trump and his Justice Department’s response. Sure, national experts are skeptical: “The president’s tone is not helpful,” says Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice think tank. But Bullock believes presidents can surprise, pointing to John F. Kennedy’s War on Poverty, Richard Nixon’s engagement with China and Jimmy Carter’s Camp David Accords, adding, “If God can move through Pharaoh, he can move through Trump.”
The Delaware man who cast the deciding vote for American independence did so after a ride that puts Paul Revere’s to shame.