Criminal Justice Reform Cost Me 21 Years of My Life
President Clinton’s infamous 1994 crime bill is just one example of why reform never goes far enough — and often only exacerbates issues it’s meant to solve
This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, which comprises 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.
In 1994, New York State convicted me of a murder I didn’t commit. Like countless others, I was found guilty of causing harm, when in fact I was victimized by a system that often uses fabricated evidence to fill prison cells with Black men just like me.
For 21 years, I languished in prison, my time stolen by Bill Clinton’s infamous 1994 crime bill. The legislation was publicized as a much-needed reform to get drugs off the street — but like so many other reform efforts framed as ways to make our criminal legal system fair and equal for all, it gave police and the prison system the means to incarcerate people without concern for justice itself.
In 2015, I was exonerated. Some years previous, a woman whose testimony had helped secure my conviction recanted it, claiming that one of the investigating detectives had coerced her into testifying. (The same detective, Louis Scarcella, has had 16 cases overturned.) Ultimately, a Brooklyn district attorney investigating old cases overturned my conviction.
While incarcerated, I studied law and was able to find paths to freedom not just for myself, but for other incarcerated people who had been wrongfully convicted. I learned that the average lawyer has too many cases and not enough time to litigate zealously; if I were ever to get out of prison, I realized, I would have to file motions on my own and assist my lawyers in proving my innocence. While I was incarcerated, no one else had a vested…