How we can save America $31 billion a year, an entrepreneur’s view on criminal justice reform

As a writer, and someone who is often in the public’s eye, I’ve mostly abstained from sharing my political views. With the exception of having named my son Reagan, after our former president, and some recent reactions to the current election, that’s probably the only things the public knows about my political opinions. The truth is I love Democrats, I love Republicans, I love Libertarians, and any organization that tries to make the country (and our world) a better place through politics. I may have my different opinions on how to do it, though.

September 2011, I was on ABC TV and the host asked me how I would change the country’s unemployment numbers. After criticizing the Jobs Act, that it would specifically stagnate wages (which it has), I wrote an open letter to the president and said something to the effect of, “Obama should pick up the phone and give me a call.” The irony is that a few weeks ago, I was standing in the same room as Obama, and I recalled my former (and frankly arrogant) statement, and regretted it. I thought, maybe we shouldn’t be giving this man such a hard time.

I was in New York recently, and before I left the city, I decided to invite two friends of mine, Allie Hoffman and Terrence Jenkins, to meet me for a drink. Allie runs a social impact media lab, working with high profile public figures, getting them involved in social change, and Terrence J. is one of the most recognizable faces on TV, as a longtime host on BET and E! News. They hadn’t met before, but as they started talking, they realized they were both working on the same cause: criminal justice reform.

Terrence said,

“Come with me to Washington and we can lobby Congress together and I can take you to the White House.”

I never travel with suits anymore, so the next day, I’m literally at Barney’s trying to find a suit worthy of being worn in the presence of the President of the United States. This would be my first time lobbying for anything, and seeing first hand how Congress worked. I was nervous I’d be late, our entourage was running behind, and I didn’t want to miss it. If you know me, you know that I hate being late, and there I was—straight up late for a briefing on Capitol Hill. After crawling through traffic in a downpour, we finally entered Capitol Hill. A rush came over me. I’d made it. Those of you that read my book Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain, know that I was very familiar with the criminal justice system as a kid, but not for the right reasons. Now, I was at the heart of it.

After working my way through security and going over the talking points with Terrence, I found myself in a room with two sitting members of Congress. The man next to me was watching Congress on a TV screen above us, with an ear turned to me. Someone knocked at the door, the congressman ran out, went to the floor to vote, and then ran back into the room. Not to sound naïve, but you’d think that they sit in that room all day long, when in reality, their job is a complete hustle.

the streets carrying guns to protect themselves, and drugs to use or sell—because there is nothing (besides prison) to prevent them from doing so.

Our prisons have filled up at a rate of 500% growth over the last 40 years .

The federal minimum sentencing laws are incarcerating millions of people, the vast majority of whom don’t deserve to be spending their lives in prison. And certainly if they do deserve life in prison, a judge should be the determining factor, just as mine was, Judge Perren. He gave me a second chance, and it’s made all the difference.

The unintended consequences have started to get the fix they needed, and a lot of laws have changed. But what used to be a felony is now considered a misdemeanor in some states. As a result, a lot of nonviolent criminals went to jail for life for drug related incidences, at times sentenced for crimes related to the distribution of substances that are now legal in some states. Did you know if you were caught with a bag of cocaine, the same root drug compound as crack, you would get 18x’s less prison ? The system is rigged against communities of color, and against those who are living in poverty, and today, minority communities represent 70% of all new prison admissions .

….and that strikes me as very unfair.

There are over 2 million people locked up in the US . I’m convinced that lawmakers could cut the total population in half if they focused on the issues that matter—non-violent crimes, mandatory minimum sentences, and drug policy reform—instead of all the issues, all at once. I understand it more now than ever, sitting inside the room, talking criminal justice reform on Capitol Hill in the Senate building.

And if this is what’s best for a million American families—then they should get the job done. If they can’t, then the call to action is simple: In November, lets elect lawmakers that will work to get some of society’s greatest liabilities out of those jails, and turn them back into working assets.

I’m a huge capitalist, but the corporations that make up our federal and state prison system don’t pay enough taxes to justify the amount of money these prisoners are costing tax payers—$39 billion per year (around $31 billion of that total is for prisoners currently incarcerated for non-violent crimes).

I refuse to sit idle, knowing we have so many humans suffering in prison that shouldn’t be when a solution is at our fingertips. In 2011, I wrote a Financial Times article, “Today’s Rioter Could Be Tomorrow’s Entrepreneur” in reaction to the UK riots, the LA riots which I witnessed personally, and what I see as a growing problem in our society: the “Have’s versus the Have Not’s” (the next piece I write, I’ll go into this subject more). In the article I said, “I know first-hand that the solution to the problem of disaffection and deep-seated unrest among the young is mentorship and entrepreneurship.”

The two congressmen started talking to me about the various politics involved in getting something done. The way it works, as I understand it, is that politicians have to withhold their vote sometimes, because if they vote on one thing, they don’t get the grand vote on something else. It occurred to me that they’re making tradeoffs. They’re trading off and making compromises constantly.

With this new lens, I sat there and watched compromise after compromise being made. If they didn’t vote for something they didn’t like, the lesser of two evils, nothing would move forward on the issues that actually mattered, like criminal justice reform. Instead of working towards the ideal, they’re just working for a deal.

And that’s the way it works. Or the way it’s not working, rather.

A woman from the Midwest spoke up; she’d just been given clemency from Obama. She has kids, and her son had been murdered while she was in prison. I saw this remarkable woman in gratitude for her clemency, dedicate herself to the cause of criminal justice reform. Her point was, families are being destroyed, that this is not just an economic impact, but societal, and familial.

Pause with me to fully appreciate the moment. Here I am learning about the various ills of our criminal system and the bills to fix it, because I’m the guy who got a second chance. It could have easily been me in prison. I was housed in juvenile correction facilities multiple times; I was a ward of the State of California. Hundreds of thousands of dollars and community resources were spent on me. These are things I’ve taken from our government and the State. Because I learned entrepreneurship and got mentorship from my stepfather, I went on to start a company that’s generated millions in tax revenue (around $50 million), and I avoided prison, and more than paid back my debt to society.

Not everyone is as fortunate as I was.

Another gentleman who I met while I was in DC by the name of Chris Wilson told me that he’d shot and killed a man at the age of 17, was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. He spent sixteen and a half years in prison working towards his release. He’s been out of prison four years now and has helped 220 people well below the poverty line in Baltimore get jobs through his construction company, Barclay.

I learned about the Crime Bill of ’94 and that there were some very negative aspects of it. A lot of our crime prevention initiatives—the same ones that helped me stay out of jail and avoid recidivism— got defunded during the Bush administration, while the stricter punishments, like tougher prison sentences, remained. The bill got passed largely on public sentiment in reaction to the rising street crime, not on facts.

Of course, if you have every opportunity to get a second chance, you have safety, and education—then stricter punishments without crime prevention makes sense. Crack down hard on the hardened criminals. But if kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, like Chris Wilson, have no safety, no security, and no education, then we are going to find them out on

If our dysfunctional system cannot pass meaningful legislation before you leave office, I beg you, Obama, to put me and my fellow business leaders to work, putting them to work. August 30th, you commuted the sentences of 111 American citizens—this is progress. I ask you to pardon or commute the rest of those that are incarcerated for non-violent crimes, and whose crimes do not fit the punishment and immediately put them into an entrepreneurial program (I would gladly teach those classes), get them back to their families, and back to being positive contributors to society, creating billions in tax revenue, instead of costing taxpayers billions.

There are some that think that even reducing the prison population by 1 million may not end mass incarceration in the U.S., and I agree that the issue is probably much more complex than simply releasing and rehabilitating prisoners, sentencing and policies will have to change—but it’s a big step in the right direction.



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